You have never actually used a Styrofoam cup, plate or takeout box

December 18, 2013

Not actually Styrofoam. (Sarah Voisin/The Washington Post)

You know Styrofoam: The flimsy white stuff that holds soda pop at picnics and Chinese takeout, that's supposed to last for thousands of years in landfills because it doesn't biodegrade. It's so bad for the environment that small, liberal cities have been banning it for decades. Now big cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., are contemplating the same.

Except that you don't really know Styrofoam. The real STYROFOAM™ has never been used to hold food and beverage containers, which are made out of the less insulative and moisture-resistant expanded polystyrene. And the maker of the real STYROFOAM™, Dow Chemical, would really like everybody to stop using the term.

"We're doing everything we can to make sure that it's used properly," says Tim Lacey, Dow's business director for building solutions in the Americas. "We don't really know why everyone wants to land on the name Styrofoam, and why it serves as something people want to misuse."

STYROFOAM™ was invented in 1941, and was first used the next year in a Coast Guard life raft. Now, it's used exclusively in building insulation, to float docks  and in some molds for floral arrangements. It's sold in 50 countries, and Dow holds the trademark in 95 countries. With very few exceptions, it's colored light blue.

"When people see the the blue dye, and they see Styrofoam, to our customers, that's a promise that they're going to get the people, the knowledge and the relationship," Lacey says. "We actually do make it blue for that reason." Owens Corning dyes its insulation pink — and even trademarked the color — for the same reason.

The real STYROFOAM™ (Dow Chemical)
The real STYROFOAM™ (Dow Chemical)

Protecting that brand is no small task. Lacey says Dow spends "a great deal of time and money" to do so, with a public affairs staff to keep tabs on the high-profile misuses of the term, and consultants who monitor major media outlets. They typically send out between 25 and 30 cease-and-desist letters annually. A couple years ago, during the congressional cafeteria wars over environmentally friendly plates and utensils, they even had to send letters to House leadership asking them to please stop maligning their product. Usually, Dow says it's an honest mistake and abusers promise to avoid the term in the future; the company has never actually taken legal action to enforce its rights.

They can't get everywhere, though. The Internet still abounds with Styrofoam abuse. Case in point: The Washington Post itself, whose reporter Mike DeBonis didn't hear from Dow Chemical after inadvertently misusing the term in a Nov. 7 article about a proposed ban on foam food packaging (they did get to the New York Times). Then there's Save Our Shores, a California advocacy group that heard nothing about its campaign against "Styrofoam," according to director Laura Kasa.

Dow is actually facing a fairly common problem in intellectual property protection: "Genericide," which happens when a product becomes so universal that people use it to refer to all products in the category, like the brand names Kleenex and Band-Aid now apply respectively to facial tissue and small adhesive bandages. If the original trademark holder doesn't make a serious attempt to police it, the mark could lose protection altogether.

Then, Styrofoam would actually mean what most people think it does already.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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