Cornell University Genetically Engineered Machines

Environmental Impact of Styrofoam

Although our research can be applied to a variety of industries, we chose to first focus on one of the top environmental issues of today: the pollution generated by Expanded Polystyrene Foam, commonly known as Styrofoam. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified Styrofoam as the fifth largest creator of waste. Over 14 million tons of polystyrene are produced globally each year. In one lifetime, we produce more polystyrene than 3.5 times the weight of all 7 billion people on earth. Even though the United States accounts for only 4.45% of the world population, we are responsible for producing approximately 21% of the world’s polystyrene.
Photo: City of San Juan Capistrano

Of these 3 million tons, 2.3 million end up in landfills, while the remainder finds its way to masses of water. Americans throw away 25 million Styrofoam cups a year, which is around 82 cups per person. When left in a landfill, Styrofoam takes over 500 years to degrade, composing at least 30% of every landfill in America. The material is even more environmentally hazardous when it reaches a marine environment. The foam breaks into small pieces that wildlife often mistakes for food. Because the material floats, it easily pollutes coasts and shorelines, making it the second most abundant type of beach debris.

Over 200 cities across America have already banned the harmful substance. Most of these cities are located in coastal California. This year, Chicago began a “No Foam Chicago” campaign to pass similar legislation in the city. On February 14th, Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to ban Styrofoam in New York City. Soon after, the government of the state of Massachusetts made a similar proposal.

As public awareness of the negative impacts of Styrofoam rapidly grows, so does the demand for an eco-friendly substitute. Current alternatives are more recyclable than Styrofoam. However, when tossed into a landfill or waterway, they cause similar environmental damage. We believe the results of our research will be most effective in this imperative application.


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2. New York Business. (2013, February 15). New Yorkers react to Bloomberg's plan to ban PS foam - News - Plastics News.Plastics News. Retrieved September 23, 2013, from

3. Bans Across The US - working to ban styrofoam packaging in Chicago. (n.d.).No Foam Chicago. Retrieved September 23, 2013, from