The food industry has contributed immensely to the waste management challenge in Zimbabwe through the use of Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), popularly known as kaylite, as packaging material.
Kaylite has detrimental effects on the environment and human health. Internationally, countries such as New York, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Boston have banned the use of EPS while others such as South Africa mainly use paper packaging. In Zimbabwe, the use of EPS is prohibited by Statutory Instrument 84 of 2012 as read with Section 140 of the Environmental Management Act (Cap 20:27).
Impact of expanded polystyrene
While there are some positive aspects of the material, Polystyrene has more harmful effects.
Waste management problem
Polystyrene foam presents unique management issues because of its lightweight nature, floatability and prevalence to be blown from disposal site even when disposed of properly. The lightweight and buoyant polystyrene travels easily through gutters and storm drains, eventually reaching the water bodies, thereby reducing the aesthetic value of the environment.
When polystyrene reaches the lakes and rivers, it breaks down into smaller, non-biodegradable pieces that are ingested by marine life into the food chain, thereby damaging human health.
Expanded polystyrene can’t be recycled
Most expanded polystyrene is non-recyclable. Where recycling is possible, it not cost effective.
The only options for waste disposal at the municipal level are incineration and landfill, but neither is ideal.
At the landfill, it takes up a disproportionate amount of space because of its expanded size. As a fuel for incinerator powered generators, its low density makes it inefficient.
Being 95 percent air, it takes up a disproportionate amount of furnace space for the energy it releases. And because of its bulky nature, it is expensive to transport.
Polystyrene foam is designed for useful life of minutes or hours, but it continues to exist in our environment for hundreds or thousands of years since it is resistant to photolysis, or the breaking down of materials by photons originating from a light source.
Non-biodegradable food packaging, especially Styrofoam, constitutes a large portion of litter in Zimbabwe and the cost of managing it is high.
The process of manufacturing polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste.
Along with the health risks associated with the manufacture of products that use polystyrene, it was noted that 57 chemical by-products are released during the creation of EPS.
This does not only pollute the air, but also produces loads of liquid and solid waste that need disposal.
The brominated flame retardants that are used on Styrofoam are also causing concern, and some research suggests that these chemicals might have negative environmental and health effects.
Ozone layer disruption
Although polystyrene manufacturers claim that their products are “ozone-friendly” or free of ChlouroFlouroCarbons (CFCs), this is partially true.
Most Polystyrene is manufactured with HydroChlouroFlouroCarbons (HCFCS), greenhouse gases harmful to the ozone layer, also causing global warming.
There are health impacts from polystyrene food packaging is associated with its production and leaching of some of its chemical components into food and drink. The general public is not typically warned of these public hazards.
Styrene, a component of polystyrene is a known hazardous substance. A recent study by the University of Zimbabwe’s Food, Nutrition and Family Sciences Department revealed that polystyrene food containers leach styrene when they come into contact with warm food or drink, alcohol, oils and acidic foods, posing direct health risk to people.
Styrene is a suspected carcinogen and neurotoxic which potentially threatens human health. Some studies have concluded that exposure to styrene causes acute mucous membrane irritation, with the eyes, nose and throat particularly affected.
Increased levels of styrene concentration may cause fatigue, irritation of the skin, eyes, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal effects, depression, headache, weakness, minor effects on kidney function and decrease in concentration ability.
Styrene has been linked to increased levels of chromosomal damage, abnormal pulmonary function and cancer.
What you can do
The University of Zimbabwe Study suggests the use of paper, bioplastics or other biodegradable material in food packaging.
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