Polystyrene foam is everywhere, even in our food, expert says

Plastics contain carcinogens that are toxic to both humans and wildlife

ORLANDO, Fla. – In 2023, avoiding plastic is nearly impossible.

Plastic is in cups, packaging, pens, cars and even inside people who ingest polluted seafood.

“There’s foam in every single coastal waterway in Florida,” said J.P. Brooker, director of the Florida Conservation Program at Ocean Conservancy.

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Polystyrene foam is a common type of plastic known for its lightweight durability and ability to insulate homes or takeout food.

“Even smaller foam pieces are especially common and since 2013 we’ve collected almost 30 million pieces of foam,” Brooker explained during a conversation with Tom Sorrells on Talk to Tom.

Imagine crushing Styrofoam packaging in your hand and seeing tiny white spheres fall to the ground. Those small pieces get into the environment and quickly disperse.

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“We know us human beings are ingesting plastic. We’re consuming it in the water that we drink, we’re consuming it (in) shellfish that we eat because these plastics bioaccumulate in some of our food,” Brooker said.

Even if it doesn’t make you sick, polystyrene foam contains carcinogens including PAHs that are toxic to both humans and wildlife.

Over time, Brooker says the plastic accumulates inside the human body.

For animals, the dangers of plastic pollution can have more immediate impacts.

“When plastics accumulate in the sand, it can change the temperature of the sand,” Brooker said.

The sex of sea turtles is determined by the temperature of the sand surrounding the egg, meaning warmer nests will likely hatch predominantly female.

Our warming climate heats the sand, which is now causing 99% of sea turtle eggs laid on Florida beaches to become female.

Baby loggerhead sea turtles emerge from a nest in Volusia County (Jaymie Reneker/ Volusia County government)

So, how do we reduce the amount of polystyrene plastic in our environment?

Brooker says among many strategies, the Ocean Conservancy is pushing lawmakers to create policies to limit polystyrene waste.

Though polystyrene can be recycled by converting the foam into harder plastics, most municipal recycling facilities do not accept the waste because it is not cost effective.

Swapping single-use plastics for items that can be washed and reused, such as glass food containers or metal silverware, is seen as one of the most immediate solutions for reducing polystyrene trash.

You can learn more about how the Ocean Conservancy removes millions of pieces of trash from Florida waterways by watching Talk to Tom. It airs every Thursday at 3:30 p.m. on News 6 and anytime on News 6+.

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About the Authors:

Tiffany produces the News 6+ Takeover at 3:30 p.m., Florida's Fourth Estate and Talk to Tom.

Katrina Scales is a producer for the News 6+ Takeover at 3:30 p.m. She also writes and voices the podcast Your Florida Daily. Katrina was born and raised in Brevard County and started her journalism career in radio before joining News 6 in June 2021.