O children of Adam, take your adornment at every masjid, and eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He likes not those who commit excess. (Qu’rán, 7:31)
Every Ramadan hundreds of thousands of Styrofoam (Polystyrene Foam) containers are used to serve the iftar meal at community gatherings. While it is an easy and cost-effective way to quickly deliver meals, the associated environmental and health concerns over its use are alarming. The call to eliminate Styrofoam has even reached Facebook, with a community page devoted to eradicating its use in mosques this Ramadan.
There have been many studies analyzing the ecological effects of producing, transporting, and disposing of Styrofoam products and the effects it poses to the environment. In the production phase, the use of greenhouse gases (previously CFC’s, now HCFC-22) as a blowing agent has been linked to the deterioration of the ozone layer, which is a contributing factor to global warming. The three main chemical building blockings of Styrofoam are benzene, styrene and ethylene. On their own in high concentrations, they are highly reactive, flammable, and possess mutagenic and carcinogenic properties. There is ongoing research into the effects of combining these reagents together and the long-term implications to the environment.
There is also the issue of disposal. Many municipalities do not recycle Styrofoam and those that do often down-cycle the residual to other disposable products. In the United States, Styrofoam products make up only 0.25% of landfill waste by weight but take up 25-30% of space by volume. Considering that Americans discard more than 25 billion Styrofoam cups annually, the potential for waste diversion is enormous. Styrofoam that does not end up in the landfill often ends up in the general environment, where it breaks down into smaller pieces. This poses a hazard to wildlife that ingests it, as the toxins within it bio-accumulates up the food chain.
There are well-documented acute health effects associated with the monomer styrene, one of the building blocks of Styrofoam. These include irritation to the skin, eye and upper respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. Chronic exposure has been linked to damage to the central nervous system leading to fatigue, headaches and general weakness. Any level of exposure can lead to a syndrome called ‘styrene sickness’ which include symptoms such as unsteadiness and decreased nerve conduction. The styrene monomer has been identified as a possible human carcinogen by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
There is ongoing research into the health effects of styrene when it comes into contact with food. Health Canada, which sets exposure limits for the monomer in this country, has not allowed the use of styrene as a food additive or in flavoring preparation, though it is still acceptable within the United States. It has also been noted that further exposure can occur from ingesting food or drinking beverages that have come into contact with styrene-containing polymers.
Alternatives: There are several alternatives to Styrofoam that are not only environmentally friendly, but also reduce ones exposure to chemicals (plasticizers) that can leach into foods. These examples can also be extended to cups, cutlery and water bottles which also significantly contribute to the waste stream during Ramadan.
1) Plant-based Containers - Over the last decade, several new products made from corn, bamboo, palm and sugar cane have reached the consumer market. These containers are recyclable, biodegradable and renewable compared to chemically-based containers, and are more sustainable over the long term.
2) Reusable Dishes - Glass, ceramic and stoneware dishes are an option for organizations looking to reduce their waste completely. While there is an added cost with purchasing and cleaning, there is substantially less waste generated over its lifespan compared to disposable containers. It also reduces the health effects associated with chemicals leaching from plastic or Styrofoam products.
3) Litterless Iftars - One way to completely reduce the production of container waste is to hold a litterless iftar. This idea has taken off in several mosques throughout the United States and is slowly gaining traction by Muslim student organizations here in Canada. Congragants attending the iftar would be required to bring their own reusable containers or rent one provided by the facility. This would reduce the clean-up time after the iftar and eliminate unnecessary waste.
This Ramadan consider the consumption choices you make and the potential waste that is generated. Starting with something simple such as the iftar and then expanding it into your daily routine goes a long way in changing our perception about waste, especially when it comes to disposable products.
For more information on Styrofoam and how you can make your iftar more environmentally friendly, please visit the following links below.
Photo Credit from D’Arcy Norman