Save Us From Styrofoam Already


Polystyrene foam has been around for a long time; I mean, it is part of my early educational life and memories.  The most popular brand-name for this material is Styrofoam ™.

I cannot say for sure whether it was officially my first science fair, although it might have been.   My parents, ever since they actually purchased retail a book entitled “1001 things you can get free,” got me free samples from some representative of the oil industry of, well, oil in various stages of refinement.

They usually tried to write or rewrite my school projects to make them “better,” and wrenching things away from them was virtually impossible, and they did “help” with my descriptions and diagrams of the “cracking” process.   Of course, I had memorized articles from every encyclopedia I could get my hands on.  This was my standard modus operandi for pretty much everything in those days.

I remember reading that the great Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman had done that as a kid, too.  I had at least one of the same problems he did.  When you read about something and have never heard it discussed, you tend to pronounce it funny.  Me, I spent years saying “crust-ta-SEE-un” instead of “crus-TAY-shun” for lobster like entities.

Anyway, we needed something to help stand up those tall, thin oil samples.  We drove by a factory that made polystyrene foam every day on the way to school, so while I was in school Mommie went in to get some free samples.  They must have been used to wrap about a quarter of the way around a glass bottle.  I have got to admit they looked fairly elegant with oil bottles stuck in them.

Before I knew the name of the stuff, there had been a little snowman made of the stuff that my Jewish parents had bought me in an effort to satisfy my need for a Christmas toy — without doing anything that seemed to be in any way “Christian.”

Years later, when I got my very first job in a hospital emergency room, I was told that to “pump yourself up with coffee” was the only way to survive an evening shift.  This led to my very first encounter with that ubiquitous pressed-polystyrene pellet entity, the polystyrene cup.

It was not my last encounter by any means.  I have often taken home restaurant leftovers.  (I have not always actually eaten them, but that is another story.)

The folks at Dow Chemical, who make the stuff, for use in crafts and such, talk about “sustainable” practices.

Even “moi,” — I must agree — that there is nothing more sustainable than mountains of polystyrene containers in landfills.

Incidentally, this was not originally a Dow Chemical invention.  They somehow seem to have revived it from a patent by the wildly prolific Swedish inventor Carl Munters.

But here it is, whether we eat in a chain restaurant or a mom-and-pop one, stacks of these polystyrene containers for leftovers disappear from their counters.  I can testify that if there is any option now existing, it has never been offered.

But wait, there’s more.

Maybe it is something about Scandinavia and this being an industry in that region, that they seem to have documented the association of leukemia and lymphatic cancers with polystyrene more clearly than the American studies.  Maybe it is just that there are so damned many chemical exposures in United States production that nobody can tell anymore what causes what. If “weak association” is one person whose death by a cancer like entity could have been avoided one more kid could grow up wit a full set of parents, isn’t that enough?

We got a polystyrene problem.  Problem with making it.  Problem with getting rid of it.

I hate industrial carcinogens.  They are a constant reminder that I live in a nation that values (greedy) industrial production more than human life.  My husband and I actually founded, and are trying to propagate, a political action committee to deal with this sort of thing.

I remember vividly when my husband showed me the video of the movie “Network.”  I can’t enumerate how many times I have quoted from Howard Beale’s rant which is at the beginning of this site full of wonderful quotes from this movie.


Of course, human health is a bloody mess and the environment s a bloody mess.  I am tired –really tired — of hearing people talk about how horrible things are, without offering any solutions.  The solutions exist, and deserve to be focused upon.

That is the reason I love Eben Bayer, someone committed to a wonderful solution – and there are other not-so-obvious reasons I love him.

First, Eben went to Rensselaer Polytechnic.  I always thought it was a pretty good school, but my father of blessed memory who was so damned tied to the veneer of Harvard glamour, thought it was a second rate school for those who could not make it into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  The name is a reminder of the Dutch heritage of upper New York State.  The reason this school is special to me is because my cousin — who was a prolific designer of helicopters — went there.

School snobbery is so outrageously ridiculous. I went to a medical school which was in a region that I learned toward the end of my tenure in France was known to many snobs as “the armpit of France.”  Anyway, having such an important and world-saving process come from Rensselaer Polytechnic is something I count this as one for my side, somehow.

Eben and his partner Gavin McIntyre in the business named Ecovative Design, had experience harvesting mushrooms.  Some people see their experiences as isolated, maybe something they had to do for money.  Me, I always thought that everything I have done, no matter how ridiculous and inappropriate it may seem, is somehow grist for the mill.

The idea is simple, but ingenious.

They know how to put together volcanic glass and agricultural waste and put it in a mold and make something that is “biodegradable,” which polystyrene is not, and certainly does not sound as if it has a whiff of carcinogenicity. I mean, agricultural waste has been around for so long that if it were going to harm anyone, it would have happened already. It is actually very useful – and valuable – as compost.

Solutions to problems need some kind of political endorsement.  Extra funding would be appropriate for something with such far reaching consequences as a natural alternative to polystyrene.

The process is a function of private business.  This seems, in our free enterprise system, to be the way to get things done.

There are lots of different kinds of brains; mine is not the world’s cleverest for business purposes, although I am pretty darned good at pushing molecules around brains.  It is hard to find a rational business partner of any sort. I mean, people are intuitive about money, perpetuating sets of skills and beliefs that are counterproductive, so it is really hard to locate someone with a potentially usable skill set.

I am no politician any more than I am a businesswoman.  I mean, I have lost friends by telling them I had to become active, even known on a political level by starting a political action committee.

This is only one potential solution to a multifaceted problem.  Solutions to any kind of nefarious manufacturing process will require not only government intervention, but poly government intervention.

And then – unlike polystyrene foam — maybe the problems will biodegrade and just fade away.

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