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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.

Photo Credit: Chris Potter / Flickr

Photo Credit: Chris Potter / Flickr

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.

Photo via Creative Commons

Photo via Creative Commons

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:

Photo via Creative Commons

Photo via Creative Commons

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.

Household chemicals. (Photo via Creative Commons)

Household chemicals. (Photo via Creative Commons)

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.

Chick-fil-A Fallacy

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?
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12 Responses

  1. Robert Steiginga says:

    Wow! So much factual error and disinformation in one place. How convenient to have it all thrown into 1 article like that, thank you. You are one scary person to have out there, trying to wield influence. God help us all..

    • Would you care to point out the errors, Robert?

      • Robert Steiginga says:

        I didn’t see my previous reply hit, so forgive me if this is a repeat, or if it varies slightly from what i had replied earlier.
        1. Dunkin Donuts has not switched away from foam cups
        2. You neglect to mention that styrene is a naturally occurring substance and is found in food like strawberry’s, cinnamon, peanuts, coffee. Is that because it weakens your argument that something might be leaching from a cup, rather than acknowledging people eat styrene all day, which might explain why it’s found in body fat?
        3. recycling EPS is done in thousands of locations every day, isn’t difficult to do, costs nowhere near what’s been implied to do so and cities like Los Angeles offer curbside recycling for foam.
        4. Dunkin’s cup usage is overstated by almost 100%
        5. For the ’13 year old girl’ with great writing skills and vocabulary – could you have POSSIBLY seen a CFA employee dump the foam cups into a densifier, which looks similar to a trash compactor, and not into a outside trash bin? CFA have them behind the stores that recycle foam, to make the transport of it more efficient by condensing the product itself
        6. You neglect to mention that the NYC ban was overturned because the court system ruled the reasoning behind installing the ban was based on a lie? And that efforts to reinstate it has been shot down, again because the reasoning behind it was a lie?
        7. one responder said foam was clogging landfills. EPS product comprises less than 1% of a landfill, but paper goods account for over 50%. So what is clogging landfills again?

        When I clicked on one of the links in the article, the amount of incorrect data, outright lies and mis-information would take an hour just to categorize. How about citing a source that can back up their claims you like with their testing methods, what labs were used, how conclusions were drawn, what was the baseline, etc? instead of just throwing in unknown groups (which anyone can form here in this day and age with a laptop and some free press) which simply parrot what you believe to be true, and go to some reputable testing groups, and see what they find? It isn’t all that expensive to do so but then again, you might not find what you want to see.

  2. Sherrie RARDIN says:

    First of all, Chick-fil-a makes no comments about “ALL” of their cups being recycled. Obviously, only those left in their restaurants are under their control. Obviously, the last point you try to make has nothing to do with Chick-fil-a cups since they ARE, by your own admission recycled. Like it or not, even “down-cycled” is recycled. Look it up. These cups (waste) are converted into reusable material. That is recycling. You don’t like that definition, take it up with Websters. And, btw, I would dispute that a bench has less functionality than a cup, so it may not even be that they are not “down-cycled” by definition either.

    To address the first point, a customer can like something in spite of another attribute. Which, also has not been proved or the FDA would make their sale and use illegal.

    Have you visited a Chick-fil-a restaurant? I see people eating in there all the time. I personally like to eat there because their employees are friendly, way above other places, and their food is fresh. Yes, people do use drive-thru but a company should not be responsible for what happens when someone takes their food off property. Are you bitching at all those companies who send home your leftovers in polystyrene containers when you don;t eat them all? Do you carry your own “green” container with you to take home leftovers? I doubt it.

    Your very last comment is so ridiculous that it does not warrant comment; to call it out as nothing but asinine and enlightening of your own motives is enough.

    To pass this OP ED piece of as anything factual is ridiculous. It is your opinion and you certainly are entitled to it. But it is not fact. Period.

    • rhondahole says:

      Obviously the truth in this article hits a nerve for some. It amazes me how some can defend their views, and this company’s assault on the environment with shallow responses, like ‘friendly employees” “fresh food”, and personal attacks on the author like “scary person”. And you know what? I’d BET this author DOES carry her own GREEN CONTAINERS with her. Like it or not, the truth about plastic, styrofoam, styrene and other toxic materials is spreading. There is far more science to support this article than snide remarks to refute it.

  3. Nick says:

    this article is more closely linked to fact than it is to opinion. Recycled has many different definitions- not sure where you come from but here in Australia we look at multiple forms of information. Recycling is going through a process to end up at the same state again. The pessimists in this page forgot to mention the raw virgin products that go into making these cups. It takes a lot of work, time and resources to produce something you use for 2 minutes to shove down your face. People who do not like to read these articles clearly love to have their head in the sand. These multi million/billion dollar companies throw this sort of propoganda out there to look like they are doing a good thing. It is like Ronald McDonald House- a company that could easily support this foundation by themselves use this public ploy to exploit the vulnerable to get people to buy more of their food. If you disagree you need to leave your house more, read more and start to use your own thoughts instead of the ones force feed through a TV. I enjoyed this article. It states the pint clearly that we need to change our practices- each one of us needs to start to think about how we use the worlds precious resources

  4. rhondahole says:

    Obviously the truth in this article hits a nerve for some. Making shallow comments like “fresh food” “friendly employees”, and calling the author a “scary person” to defend this company’s assault on the environment with styrene and its effects on the people that buy food there is a diversion. They are comments without substance or scientific fact.

    It’s laughable to think that the government protects us from toxins like styrene. Tell that to the people of Detroit who have high levels of lead in their water supply, or the effects fracking (which are too many to list)has had on communities in Texas. The government only takes action once the horse is already out of the barn…. Maybe.

    And you know what? I’d BET the author DOES carry her own green containers.

    Like it or not, the truth is getting out about the toxic effects plastic products are having on humans, animals and the environment. More and more people are refusing to use plastic products. No doubt that is not good news for business that use these products to improve their profits. Plastic, styrene and styrofoam are cheap.

    Awareness is rising. No surprise a company would put a “green recycle wrapper”on their product to
    target those who don’t have all the information about what it takes to be green and wish to be.
    Its called marketing.

    Most people want to make better personal choices. It has an impact on business. Why else
    would a business promote their so called green practice?

  5. Craig Johnson says:

    Sherrie, recycling polystyrene doesn’t make sense. It’s an outdated material, that takes up extra space in landfills, is difficult to collect once in our streams and water system, and many large cities across the nation are banning it. It’s not worth that much once you do recycle it and is usually made into things that are less desirable than the material it is replacing—wood table vs short lived plastic table that flakes in the sun as a reaction and then is impossible to collect—moving into our environment. Do you not wish for a clean environment to live in?

    – Polystyrene takes more energy and water to recycle than making it.
    – Most municipal city systems do not collect #6 —in part because their are not good uses for it and it takes too much energy/water.
    – #6 plastic is often confused with #2 and #1 plastics and gets mixed in contaminating the batches.
    – Polystyrene is recognized by the US Dept of Health and Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine
    Applied Toxicology suspects it’s a carcinogen. Do you understand why this might be hard to prove? It’s because no one is going to allow studies that give people cancer, so they need to look at properties of the material, how it migrates, other animals that are affected in lab tests, etc. You can have a pretty good idea that it is a carcinogen (causes cancer and effects the nervous system).

    If there are better solutions out there that are safer so why do you argue for an old outdated one?

    Sherrie, are you an expert on sustainable practices and/or plastics? Do you have some strange allegiance to the Polystyrene industry that you want to make us aware of? Will your beverage not taste the same without it being in a polystyrene cup? I’m not sure why you’re so defensive. If there is a chance to remove something toxic from people (and children’s lives) for about 1 or 2 cents more, why are you against that?

    The FDA didn’t identify smoking as dangerous at first either, did that mean cigarettes prior to the FDA labeling were not cancer causing?

    Can you define “fresh” for me.

  6. Jim Ries says:

    My name is Olivia and I am 13 years old and together with my brother Carter (14.5) we started our own nonprofit organization back in 2009 in an effort to help clean up our environment and save endangered species for at least One More Generation… and beyond.

    I may not know as much about everything the author of this article stated or about everything everyone is complaining about with her article, but I do know that she is right about styrofoam being toxic and bad for animals. Styrofoam is bad for our environment and bad for animals. I too have visited Chick-fil-A before and seen the separate bins for their cup recycling and I have also watched the employees take the waste containers filled with the cups and throw them in the dumpster with the rest of the trash.

    Chick-fil-A may not be technically responsible for what the customers do with their styrofoam cups but that should not relive them from being responsible for the effects these cups are having on our environment or on animals. At what point will corporate America realize that they are just as much responsible for being the solution to the problem as we the customers?

    I’m just saying…

  7. ChristineA says:

    CFA used to be one of my clients and they really do keep the polystyrene cups because of their customers. They have a very loyal following and they don’t want to disrupt that. But, I seriously doubt that losing the cups would be a deal breaker. The real reason people like CFA goes much deeper than the cups. They need to grow some and change the cups based on higher ideals, like because it’s safer and it is the responsible thing to do for the environment. I think if they made a sincere commercial stating these facts, their loyal customers would love and respect them even more.

  8. Ilda Hershey says:

    Chick-fil-A has since cancelled the program. Big news when they launched it. No news when they cancelled it.

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