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June 27-July 3, 2007

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs


Nearly 100 cities and counties in the United States, including San Francisco, Santa Monica, Berkeley, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, Malibu and Calabasas, have entirely banned the use of what's commonly called Styrofoam food containers and packaging, and until May 10, 2007, Capitola was well on its way to permanently joining them.

After protests from the California Restaurant Association and the Shadowbrook Restaurant, however, the Capitola City Council will reconsider the July 1 deadline for the ordinance at its June 28 meeting.

Given this, Nūz sought to cover the core issue involved--namely, the nature of Styrofoam and its environmental effects.

First, what exactly is Styrofoam?

Well, technically, it's Dow Chemical's trade name for its version of extruded styrene foam (known as XPS), which is made to insulate buildings. It is actually a heavier, stiffer and more moisture-resistant product than its look-alike food-packaging version, which is made of expanded styrene foam (EPS), and is not actually Styrofoam. Or at least so says Dow Chemical.

But since the battle over banning not-actually Styrofoam will likely go national within a few years, and technical terms will come to dominate the day, Nūz is going to take a hint from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and start the accuracy ball rolling, refraining from calling things that Dow says aren't Styrofoam Styrofoam and instead calling those little wobbly round toss-away cups and plates and take-out containers by their proper collective name: polystyrene.

One can get even more ultratechnical than that and refer to it as polymerized styrene (a polymer being a large repeated-pattern molecule made up of smaller molecules), but since not even the Pure and Applied Chemistry folks insist on that, Nūz won't either.

Regardless of nomenclature, both extruded and expanded polystyrenes are a combination of four chemicals. Two form the stuff's body and two more puff it up, like some crispy breakfast cereals, into balloonlike joined globules consisting mostly of air.

And what are those four chemicals?

First ingredient: benzene (a.k.a. coal tar), a clear, colorless, pleasantly fragrant but flammable liquid which naturally shows up during natural combustion (volcanic activity, forest fires), occasionally occurs in foods (including butter, coffee and roast beef), but for industrial purposes is usually extracted from coal, though it can also found in gasoline and some other petroleum derivatives. It is carcinogenic at high levels of exposure.

Second: styrene (a.k.a. vinylbenzene), a clear, flammable oily liquid with a slightly sharp, unpleasant odor. Some U.S. federal agencies claim that it's naturally found in cinnamon, beef, coffee beans, peanuts, wheat, oats, strawberries and peaches; The EPA claims that there are no natural occurrences. Testing for the presence of styrene has improved so much since its industrial use became widespread that neither claim is verifiable. According to the Centers for Disease Control, styrene's possible carcinogenic properties are as yet undetermined. It's primarily derived from petroleum and natural gas.

Third and fourth ingredients: the puffer-uppers. Ethylene, the main puffer, is a colorless gas with a mild fragrance that occurs in nearly every plant, operates as a developmental hormone, and aids in fruit ripening, leaf opening and color and maturation development. Industrially, though, it's produced by cracking apart other gases, and is used, with water, to make ethanol; it's also used as a refrigerant.

To get the puff going, workers pour the benzene and styrene into a pre-foamer, while separately mixing ethylene with chemical No. 4: hydrochloroflorocarbons, or HCFCs, which replaced more volatile CFCs two decades ago due to ozone layer concerns.

Workers then release the hot, high-pressure ethylene/HCFC gaseous combo into the pre-foamer chamber; the styrene develops bubbles and expands to around 40 times its former size, flows into a main storage chamber and sits and cools for a day. Then it gets dribbled down into molds, steamed a second time to fix its shape (which expands the mass another 10 percent), cooled again; the bubbly air pockets are fixed in size, and voilà--Fido, who's been so patient all these hours while we're out for Chinese and hasn't even ripped up the couch, gets yummy warm egg rolls, kept warm by polystyrene, as his reward.

Back at the factory, meanwhile, that four-ingredient puffing process has given polystyrene two prominent characteristics. First, it's incredibly light for its mass; in fact, it's one of the lightest materials per unit of mass ever known. Second, since it consists primarily of air-filled pockets with globular linked shells for exteriors, it presents a tremendously complex matrix for energy to move through. It's that combination that makes polystyrene so popular.

Popular for what? Primarily for its most well known quality--that of slowing heat transfer out of, say, take-out egg rolls. Or into cold drinks sitting in a polystyrene cooler. Or through walls, where spray-on polystyrene insulation works wonders as blow-in and large-hole insulation that nearly entirely blocks cold air intrusion and heat escape.

That resistance to rapid energy loss also gives polystyrene a less-well-known ability: namely, to block sound. Even remarkably thin polystyrene slices, placed in alternating left-side and right-side partially blocking positions in openings such as booming machine vents or air ducts, will effectively cut off most intrusive sound. This is how it's used in many radio stations and recording studios where sound isolation is crucial.

And that's how most forms of polystyrene, both extruded (Styrofoam) and expanded (our focus), at least as measured by sheer mass, are used: as heat- and sound-resistant filler; basically, as insulative construction material. And as decorative material, too. One of the main sources of the postmodern sculptural filler we see on recent buildings--fluted columns and baroque curlycues in fancier entrances--are often simply carved polystyrene swathed in several layers of stucco.This use of polystyrene as feathery 3-D mass extends into the world of crafts, where it has replaced a lot of clay, papier-mâché and other light materials, because it's easier to carve up and otherwise work with.

And into the world of packaging, where again, its lightness cuts the cost of shipping large goods, and its resistance to rapid energy transfer helps protect those goods against damage caused by traumatic bumping.

Now, alert readers might notice that so far we've mentioned few, if any, problems with polystyrene. That's because while there are always dangers in industrial processes, from massive industrial puffing procedures to solo mandolin making, the most significant difficulties with polystyrene occur not in its chemical components, manufacture or daily use, but on the back end--namely, that once used, we can hardly--to paraphrase the old country song--miss it, because it won't go away.

Just how much it won't go away--that is, how persistent polystyrene is in the environment in nonbiodegradable form--is difficult to quantify, because boatloads of money are at stake, both for polystyrene manufacturers and for paper and other manufacturers who would supplant them--and so claims on all sides tend toward the exaggerative.

Polystyrene fans, both industry and public, point to the minimal weight the material adds to landfills, ignoring the huge mass. They also simultaneously claim that polystyrene is recyclable (if one lives near one of the few recycling facilities in the nation) that it isn't recyclable (too expensive, and therefore impractical) and that it doesn't matter (because replacement paper products don't degrade well in landfills, either).

Foes of polystyrene, contrarily, claim that it doesn't ever break down, and thus presents an ever-growing volume, or that it does break down, but into small pellets which invade land, sea and air; that it remains buoyant forever, churning up to the top of water upon agitation; and that it sogs up, sinks to water's bottom, and as its bubbles degrade to open slightly, becomes a honeycomb of mini-storage-modules for toxins heavier than water.

Complexifying the matter yet more, a third set of analysts, the most prominent of which is a Dr. Martin Hocking of the University of Victoria, B.C., point to energy life-cycle patterns which make the whole question an environmental wash. "Paper Versus Polystyrene: A Complex Choice," often cited as a seminal work in total energy life-cycle studies, notes that manufacturing an uncoated paper cup uses four to six times the raw material, 10 times as much steam and 14 to 20 times as much electricity as making a polystyrene cup. And the Green Design Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, studying the matter, concluded that polystyrene manufacture is twice as energy efficient and one-third less toxic, overall, than paper manufacture.

Yet beyond the life cycle, which covers chemical extraction to disposal, there's the death-cycle--the post-disposal bardo--and the problem with polystyrene is that, just like the creepy-crawlies in endless monster movie cycles, it simply refuses to die. As Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, asked last year, about polystyrene-type plastic mass: "Where does it go?" And then he answered: "There are only three places it can go: our earth, our air and our oceans."

And it's the oceans--from which all known life emerged, and to which everything eventually washes back--that are taking the hit for our polystyrene-related convenience. Turtles are ingesting so many light plastic pellets that they can no longer submerge. Penguin chicks are dying from filling themselves with nutritionless polystyrene bitlets. Seabirds are flopping to the ground, filled with jagged bits of soaked plastic, including polystyrene, and their stomachs burst open from the swelling. The California Coastal Coalition estimates that over 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals have died in the northern Pacific Ocean alone from plastic ingestion and enmeshment.

Even worse is what's happening toward the ocean bottoms. Entire sections of ocean have become plastic graveyards in which eroded plastic nuggets, soaked and sunken down to the sea floor, outnumber similar-size zooplankton by a factor of six. Sea-floor-feeding animals eat them, larger animals (including fish) eat them, humans and other mammals eat the fish, and the kidneys, livers and equivalent internal filtering systems of all animals along the whole chain fill with polystyrene and its broken-down components.

It's well known that some of these chemical components severely compromise the reproductive systems of many species, which may be why formerly thriving schools of fish are disappearing. This also may be a factor in humans' declining fertility levels. And who knows what other bodily functions are compromised as well.

Now, refocusing on the controversy at hand, the owners of the Shadowbrook Restaurant in Capitola, as well as the California Restaurant Association, make the point that simply picking out disposable restaurant containers won't end this deathly cycle, and they're right. Polystyrene, both extruded and expanded, ends up in landfills and waters when it's discarded after being used in insulation, craft materials and decorative building materials as well.

But those discards overwhelmingly go to modern dry-treatment landfills, where they remain, for all practical purposes, chemically inert. Polystyrene cups, plates, takeout containers and the like, tossed carelessly into nearly full beachside trash cans on breezy days, go directly into the water, and thus into the oceans where they do the most profound damage.

So where does this leave the city of Capitola?

Nūz spoke with city planner and liaison to the city's environmental commission John Akeman, and he says that a good plan seems to be in the works. "Since word got around about it," he told Nūz--and word about Capitola's intended ban did get around nationally, even hitting the pages of USA Today--"many companies are stepping forward" to offer alternative products in the same cost range as polystyrene ones. "And many restaurants are stepping forward, as well," to either support the ban or to volunteer that they've cooperated in some other way, such as notifying customers that nonstyrene versions of takeout containers are available for a few cents more.

Which leaves one remaining question: is a ban, rather than a program of voluntary compliance, the best way to achieve the goal of cutting down on seabound polystyrene?

Nūz's writers are not fans of bans in general, except where continuing behavior or practice produces objectively provable, demonstrable, otherwise irreversible harm.

And in this particular matter, the evidence of irreversible harm is so overwhelmingly established that it seems clear that the city of Capitola is, like the 100 or so cities who have already done so, more than justified in banning the use of polystyrene in disposable food containers, and Nūz urges retention of the ban at the Capitola City Council's June 28 meeting.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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