Has the Chick-fil-A “We make Benches out of our Styrofoam cups” ad appeared on your social media yet? When it hit mine, I had to respond to Chick-Fil-A publicly so they don’t get away with this misleading polystyrene propaganda.
Chick-Fil-A is serving up the dangerous neurotoxin styrene with its drinks along with a side of green-washing in order to defend itself.
At the end of this article, I will share Chick-fil-A’s new ad and give you five specific ways it is full of it, but first you should know a bit about styrene, the history of switching from Styrofoam to greener alternatives in America, and why we aren’t protected by law from being poisoned by places like Chick-fil-A.
Styrofoam Endangers Wildlife and Humans Alike
Polystyrene, a type of plastic known most commonly by its Dow Chemical brand name of Styrofoam, is one of the most common forms of trash at beaches worldwide and in America, right up there in the dirty top ten. Polystyrene is particularly dangerous to birds and sea creatures because it breaks into round bits that resemble larvae and fish eggs that mimic food. In 2014, on International Coastal Cleanup day, volunteers counted 1, 256,553 pieces of foam less than 2.5 cm in size. That’s just one day and reflects only what the volunteers had the patience to count in small pieces. For a full report on the results of 2014’s International Coastal Cleanup Day, read their report here.
Styrene, a chemical found in polystyrene, is a known animal carcinogen. It is not good for birds, fish, turtles or cetaceans, and it’s terrible for people too. Styrene is a known human neurotoxin, possible human carcinogen, and it migrates easily into food or drink when foam containers are heated or come into contact with hot food, acids (like lemon or tomato juice) and fats or oils. A study by the United States Environmental Protection Agency conducted in 1982 found that 100 percent of Americans tested had styrene in their fat tissue.
“In terms of consumer hazards, the biggest styrene concern is with food packaging, as studies have shown this substance can leach out of polystyrene takeout food and drink containers,” says Mike Schade of Safer Chemicals. “If you drink Coffee or soup or eat Chinese food from a polystyrene foam container, you can potentially be exposed to this chemical, which government agencies consider reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
Workers exposed to styrene in the manufacturing process are more likely to get a rare form of lymphoma. Read the facts about styrene here.
The Movement to Replace Styrofoam in Food Service
Way back in 1990, McDonald’s switched from polystyrene foam “clam shells,” thanks to public pressure and a partnership with Environmental Defense Fund. By switching to paper-based wraps for its sandwich packaging, McDonald’s achieved a “70-90 percent reduction in sandwich packing volume, reducing landfill space consumed, energy used, and pollutant releases over the lifecycle of the package.”
Sadly, Mcdonald’s returned to polystyrene for cups with its sale of coffee when it decided to compete with Starbucks for coffee dollars. In 2011, As You Sow introduced a shareholder resolution to get rid of the foam cups, stating in part that McDonald’s “has repeatedly emphasized its commitment to environmental leadership, yet continues to use polystyrene-based beverage cups 20 years after phasing out polystyrene-based clamshell food containers due to its negative environmental impact.”
A total of 29.3 percent of investors supported the first year resolution, giving As You Sow reason to try again in 2012. That year, McDonald’s launched a pilot program to replace the polystyrene cups with double-walled fiber hot cups. The pilot program was successful and McDonald’s dropped the foam cups in all of its locations.
Notably, Starbucks uses 10 percent recycled paper for its hot beverage cups, and offers a discount for customers who bring in reusable beverage containers.
Ocean Conservancy’s 2015 Litter Report tells the tale of Dunkin’ Donuts switch from polystyrene to paper:
In early 2014, fifth and sixth grade students from Park School, Massachusetts, decided they were tired of seeing those beverage cups, made of expanded polystyrene or EPS, littering beaches and waterways. The students began a campaign on change.org petitioning Dunkin’ Donuts to stop using EPS cups. To call the petition a success is an understatement – the campaign has since garnered over 280,000 signatures.
The dedication and commitment to the cause of these young students landed them a meeting at Dunkin’ Donuts’ Corporate Headquarters in Canton, Massachusetts, where the students expressed their concerns about the 1.7 billion coffees served each year in disposable EPS cups, which could have major consequences if they end up in the ocean. Thanks to the students’ persistence, Dunkin’ Donuts agreed to switch to more environmentally friendly alternatives for their hot beverages.
In 2015, A Coalition of America’s largest school districts, The Urban School Alliance, which includes NYC, LA., Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando, joined together to abolish the Styrofoam school lunch tray and replace it with a biodegradable, recycled, food-grade, non-toxic paper sectioned plate. Through collective buying power, the school districts were able to lower the costs to make the switch affordably to the safer alternative for the 2.9 million children it serves daily. Read the whole story here.
NYC and at least 70 cities and counties across America have banned styrene. NYC’s ban went into effect July 2015. See Surfrider’s list of polystyrene bans here.
The Government Is Not Protecting You
So why is it legal to poison consumers with styrene? The facts on styrene are not in dispute. But in America, The Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA) really provides no control at all.
First, the law grandfathered in the 62,000 chemicals at use in commerce at the time of passage. Instead of requiring corporations to prove their chemicals safe before testing them on us and the environment, TSCA puts the burden on the EPA to prove risk and require the companies to do the safety testing. The reliability of the data set for evaluation is not set forth. Confidential Business Information can be claimed by a business without upfront justification or review by the EPA. And the safety standard set of “unreasonable risk” is further burdened by a “least burdensome alternative” test.
EPA can’t even ban the most notorious carcinogen, Asbestos, which has killed thousands of workers and family members of workers exposed to it. After 10 years of study, in 1989, EPA issued a regulation to ban Asbestos but was sued by the manufacturers who won the right to keep producing it, as the courts found EPA had not chosen the “least burdensome” alternative to protect the public. After that loss, EPA virtually gave up the effort to ban harmful chemicals. There is a growing tide of legislators trying to amend TSCA, but so far industry still has the upper hand.
And here is the Chick-fil-A attempt to sell its polystyrene as a good thing and five reasons why this ad is totally misleading and bad news:
- First, the ad focuses on how Chick-fil-A customers just love polystyrene cups because they keep the beverages COLD. This is an attempt to avoid the issue of chemical leaching of styrene into hot beverages like coffee, which the restaurant also serves in the same polystyrene cups. But even cold drinks can be tainted with styrene from a polystyrene cup, especially if the drink is acidic. Have some lemon with that tea? Or a citrus flavored soda?
- Fast food is often taken “to go.” The number of cups that stay in the Chick-fil-A restaurants that have the possibility of getting recycled may be a small fraction of the number that go with drivers into their cars and never get into the recycling process advertised for the cups left behind.
- To defend their use of cheap polystyrene, which is poisonous and rarely recycled, Chick-fil-A found a company willing to process the material into benches, but this is rare. Most plastic in America does NOT get recycled, even if it goes into a recycling bin (if the district even offers this) as the cost of recycling plastics typically outweighs the cost of virgin material. Especially with polystyrene, which is mostly AIR. Plastic Recycling rates in America have plummeted as we increase the quantity of fossil fuels extracted through ever more harmful measures like fracking and tar sands extraction. The glut of fossil fuels is ruining our atmosphere, climate and oceans, through oil spills and the continual spill of plastics made from fossil fuels into our oceans.
- Even the polystyrene cups from Chick-Fil-A trash bins are not recycled – they are down-cycled into bench material. This means a non-stop production of more poisonous polystyrene for cups, endangering workers who make them and consumers who drink from them. The cups don’t get remade into cups. They get turned into benches. This is not a closed loop process like glass-into-glass or paper-into-paper, but a polluting dead end of poisonous cup to bench that goes on repeat.
- Polystyrene is a top pollutant on beaches of America and it gets into our waterways where fish eat it and we eat the poisoned fish. Hmm… Is Chick-Fil-A trying to poison the Filet-O-Fish down the street at McDonald’s?