Getting Clear on the Name “Styrofoam”

Polystyrene foam is often referred to as the brand name “Styrofoam,” a trademark of the Dow Chemical Company. However, common foam containers are made from a material called expanded polystyrene foam or foam #6. This mistake has made news recently as it was found that some newspapers and city governments have mistaken polystyrene foam for the brand name Styrofoam.

An article from the San Diego Tribune recently showed that this mistake has been pervasive in multiple pieces of legislation and in newspapers. The Encinitas, CA, city council board and San Diego Union-Tribune both incorrectly referred to polystyrene products as Styrofoam in recent discussions of disposable food containers. This is a very important issue, especially as many cities consider their foam recycling programs and seek more information about foam products.

Styrofoam is a trademarked product used on Dow’s foam and construction products in residential, commercial and industrial products as well as floral and craft products. It is not used to create foam cups and other serving items. Companies such as Dart Container Corporation create a variety of disposable food container items using polystyrene foam, a material that is widely used for its convenience, insulation benefits, and low cost.

When referring to foam containers, be sure to not refer to them as a Styrofoam brand product. For newspapers, the AP Style guide recommends referring to the material used to make cups and other serving items as plastic foam, and to avoid using the name “Styrofoam” unless referring specifically to the trademark brand. This is a common mistake, in other words. For example, generic facial tissues are sometimes wrongfully called Kleenex, a trademark of Kimberly-Clark, and flying discs are oftentimes called Frisbees, a registered trademark of the Wham-O toy company. Although it is an easy mistake to make, there can be a large difference between trademarked products and generic terms they may be compared to. Be sure to use the right one.