Categorical thinking is the bane of discernment; think “world music.” Indexing says more about the indexer than what it catalogues, and this is no different when it comes to the environment.
As a byproduct of crude oil refining, polystyrene foam (EPSF, or StyrofoamTM) seems rank. Recently I needed it to test with metalcasting, and found Snow Craft’s plant by asking around in local shops.
The sprawling space warehouses slabs of foam the size of a bisected van or a twins’ coffin. Several computer-driven hot wire cutting tables punctuate the labyrinth of stacked foam. The wire cutters are precisely heated to make smooth cuts for even the most fanciful shapes, even for artists: Sculptor L.T. Cherokee buys his foam there. Fume extractor ducts suck out the emissions when cutting.
Bill, who has worked there for almost 3 decades, cycles regularly to keep fit. He’s “eaten pounds” of EPS foam and plastered his lungs with it. He says it’s used for soil amendments because it aerates the soil, even on food crops.
A cursory search on EPSF’s dangers finds a site that recycles information from another site of old info. In fact everything I found was from the same period, in the mid-late 90s when we stopped heating up our takeout in Styrofoam because it would “give you cancer.” That doesn’t seem to worry John Boehner (tanning beds? smoking?), who helped bring Styrofoam back to Congress’ cafeteria.
Farrah Khan of Toronto’s Naturopack says, “You can’t take a styrofoam container and make it into another styrofoam container.” Food-grade items require a purity that only virgin source materials can promise. But you can make it into all kinds of architectural items. If we required to manufacturers to take responsibility for their foam, as Germany does, would that improve its cradle-to-cradle profile?
After the food alarm, there is probably a lingering sense in the public that EPS foam is bad. But EPS can be buried without liners in landfills—its soil aeration helps decomposition of other materials, unless of course it catches fire.
In the mid-90s I was told by a local ice-cream truck using Styrofoam cups that it “burns as clean as natural gas” when properly processed—admittedly rare. I want to believe that not everything compromised should be discarded.
When I burned it in the studio with a soldering iron and a butane-heated hot knife (with respirator), it still stank. I bought a hot wire cutter from The Compleat Sculptor that’s less fumey. Yet, things we categorically hate might only need appropriate handling from us to be harmless, even helpful. As an artist, I’m forced to ask: to what extent can personal responsibility manage the hazardous?