Polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam®, is a plastic that is used for packaging, building docks, and for take-out containers owing to its low cost, light weight, versatility, thermal efficiency, durability, and resistance to moisture. While it is easy and inexpensive to produce, Styrofoam is extremely hard to degrade in the environment after it is disposed of (Ho et al., 2017). Plastics remain in the environment for hundreds of years and when they are exposed to biological, physical, and chemical factors, they are degraded into microplastics and nanoplastics that infiltrate the soil, water, and even the air (Kik et al., 2020). Styrofoam and other plastics have found their way to waterbodies and are causing threats to aquatic organisms around the globe (Fauna & Flora International, 2020). Polystyrene pollution in lakes and other waterbodies is a serious concern for aquatic ecosystems, wildlife, and humans alike.
The Styrofoam pollution found in lakes can largely be attributed to dock systems made of unencapsulated polystyrene. While single-use polystyrene used for food and beverage containers has been banned in some municipalities (Vancouver Sun, 2019), it is still used widely and this is another avenue through which microplastics can be transported to lakes by rivers, streams, and wind. Polystyrene used to float objects such as docks, floats, and buoys is at the mercy of the natural elements if not encapsulated within a harder case. Wind and waves break down the polystyrene over time, and tiny pieces of it can be found coating shorelines and floating throughout lakes. These small foam pieces are considered to be microplastics (plastic <5mm), which are persistent in the environment and pose a risk to fish and wildlife (GBF Report, 2019).
Styrofoam pollution is a major concern as its lifetime in aquatic environments is unknown. It will degrade into increasingly smaller sizes, but because of the durable polymers (chemical structures) found in petroleum-based plastics, it will never disappear (Clean Water Action, 2011). Research has shown that polystyrene particles cause digestion problems, clog appendages, and bioaccumulate in fatty tissues in aquatic organisms. However, the impact is not limited to animals; research is showing that microplastics also build up and cause adverse health effects in humans through the consumption of fish and even drinking water (Clean Water Action, 2011).
While the consequences of the continual use of polystyrene foam for floating docks and packaging are well known, there is little sign of large scale change to industry practices to prevent further pollution. So, what is the solution? At the individual level, it can be as simple as avoiding unencapsulated polystyrene when building new docking systems, encouraging local businesses to switch to more sustainable to-go containers, and advocating for better regulations around the use of unencapsulated polystyrene.
Some alternatives to foamed polystyrene include hard plastic, expanded polypropylene, laminated corrugated cardboard fish boxes, or solid board boxes with a wax lining (Fauna & Flora International, 2020). The best and most durable of these options would be to use hard plastics made with high density polyethylene. Docks built with this material are estimated to last 30-50 years and some manufacturers use recycled plastic in the manufacturing to help reduce plastic going into landfills (Georgian Bay Forever, 2021). When deciding on a material to use, make sure the polymers are high-grade, UV-stabilized, resistant to environmental stresses, and balance in rigid and rough water. It is better to avoid foam if possible and opt for hard plastics filled with air (EZ Dock).
If you notice polystyrene floating in your lake or lining the shoreline, you can report your observations to the Report All Poachers and Polluters (RAPP) line at 1-877-952-RAPP (7277) or online here. You can also contact FLNRORD to report a natural resource violation.
Increasing the recycling of foamed polystyrene is another solution to the issue. While the priority should primarily be geared towards solutions that decrease reliance upon foamed polystyrene products and reducing the generation of foamed polystyrene waste, recycling may help to decrease the amount of pollution. Increasing awareness and sharing information amongst users and other stakeholders about the impacts of foamed polystyrene pollution and promoting relevant regulations may support a larger scale shift away from polystyrene foam. Finally, advocating for the implementation of regulation in regard to unencapsulated polystyrene foam in BC may bring the issue to the attention of policy makers.
The Lake Windermere Ambassadors are a clear example of strong stewardship in this regard, as they have developed an innovative solution in response to the rising crisis in their local watershed. They are offering an incentive program to connect owners of harmful docks or unnatural shorelines with the required resources to rebuild improved and more sustainable structures, which will benefit everyone who relies on and enjoys Lake Windermere. They are offering a rebate of 50%, up to $500, for any individual who takes action to improve their shoreline or water based infrastructure. To apply for a rebate (opening soon) or donate to the fund, visit this link.
Bringing awareness to the issue allows for potential engagement and shifts in policy. This issue was brought to our attention by sisters Sophia and Bella Friesen. While out paddle boarding, they made the unfortunate discovery that the lake was filled with blue Styrofoam. After conducting their own research, the Friesen sisters felt they had to take action after learning about the harmful nature of polystyrene pollution to aquatic life and human health. To read the letter they sent to us and other lake advocates, visit this link. The BCLSS is committed to sharing information about this issue with our members, and we encourage our community to engage in this matter by writing letters to your local paper (example from the Nelson Star, 2019), reporting pollution, and advocating for better regulation.
Clean Water Action. (2011). Facts about Styrofoam Litter (Expanded Polystyrene Foam). https://bit.ly/3mQhTBI
Erdie, L. (2019). Problems with Polystyrene Foam. Georgian Bay Forever. https://bit.ly/3FDLNln
Fauna & Flora International (2020). An initial investigation into marine uses of foamed polystyrene. https://bit.ly/3DBCyQY
Georgian Bay Forever (2021). Unencapsulated Dock Foam Alternatives. https://bit.ly/3FFO3se
Ho, B. T., Roberts, T. K., & Lucas, S. (2018). An overview on biodegradation of polystyrene and modified polystyrene: the microbial approach. Critical reviews in biotechnology, 38(2), 308-320. https://bit.ly/3mQjx6j
Kik, K., Bukowska, B., & Sicińska, P. (2020). Polystyrene nanoparticles: Sources, occurrence in the environment, distribution in tissues, accumulation and toxicity to various organisms. Environmental Pollution, 262, 114297. https://bit.ly/3v50dWR
Lowrey, U. (2019, Apr 13). Letter: Deteriorating docks pose hazard. Nelson Star. https://bit.ly/30g8ko5
McIntyre, G. (2019, Dec 29). Ban on foam cups and containers in Vancouver goes into effect on Jan. 1. Vancouver Sun. https://bit.ly/2X6L6zH
Author: Marie McCallum