“Styrofoam.” “Polystyrene.” “EPS.” Whatever name you give it, we’re probably all referring to the same kind of plastic. It comes in a clamshell shape whenever we order takeout or when our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. It creates the cups we keep next to the office coffee machine and braces our new printers in the box.
Its affordability, durability, and low weight are some of its advantages. “Styrofoam” has been around for a long time and can take on any shape we want thanks to its many applications in the consumer sector.
However, its one-time use has a drawback: it will disintegrate and disperse in the wind, take up excessive landfill space, and endure long after your great-grandchildren have great-great-grandchildren. This is because most haulers will tell you to discard it, and there are very few recyclers that can process it. This shows the environmental impacts of styrofoam.
Table of Contents
What is Styrofoam?
A multitude of expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) applications are known by the trademarked brand name Styrofoam. Styrene monomer is used to create this insulating, waterproof, and lightweight material.
Types of Styrofoam
Polystyrene is a kind of plastic used to make both EPS and XPS. They serve diverse functions and have distinct physical characteristics, nevertheless.
- Expanded polystyrene (EPS)
- Extruded polystyrene (XPS)
1. Expanded polystyrene (EPS)
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is the most widely used kind of styrofoam and is utilized in a wide range of products, such as food containers, packing materials, disposable cups, insulation, and other items. EPS is insulating, waterproof, and lightweight.
2. Extruded polystyrene (XPS)
Because it is denser and more durable than EPS, this kind of styrofoam is frequently used for building, insulation, and other uses where increased strength and durability are necessary. Additionally, XPS may be used in damp locations and has a higher moisture resistance.
How Is Styrofoam Made?
Polystyrene beads are expanded using vapor to create EPS Styrofoam. Special blowing agents, such as butane, propane, pentane, methylene chloride, and chlorofluorocarbons, are utilized to cause them to expand. After being heated and exposed to vapor, these grains swell up into tiny pearls or beans.
Following the application of further vapor pressure, the enlarged beads bind together to create substantial blocks of EPS. Depending on how these blocks are going to be used, they can be molded into different forms or cut into sheets.
What Is Styrofoam Used For?
Food containers, packing materials, throwaway cups, insulation, and other things are frequently made from Styrofoam.
- Food Packaging
- Moulded Styrofoam for Consumer Goods
- Packing Peanuts
- Medical Supply Cooler Boxes
1. Food Packaging
Products including cups, plates, and take-out containers are frequently made from expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. Because it is lightweight, insulating, and moisture-resistant, this particular kind of styrofoam is perfect for maintaining a constant temperature for food and beverages.
2. Moulded Styrofoam for Consumer Goods
Expanded polystyrene foam that has been molded into different shapes and sizes is another way that expanded polystyrene foam is used to manufacture consumer goods.
Examples of these goods include foam inserts for shipping products, protective casings for fragile objects, and packaging for electronics. Styrofoam like this is made to cushion objects and keep them safe while transported.
3. Packing Peanuts
Small, light pellets made of polystyrene foam are frequently used as packing material for shipping breakable goods. The purpose of these packing peanuts is to protect and cushion a package’s contents while it is being transported.
4. Medical Supply Cooler Boxes
Vaccines and other temperature-sensitive goods are frequently housed in cooler boxes made of extruded polystyrene (XPS) foam. Because XPS foam is denser and stronger than EPS, it is more resilient and a better fit for applications that call for additional insulation and strength.
Environmental Impacts of Styrofoam
The majority of people are aware that Styrofoam harms the environment, but how exactly does it cause problems?
The fact that Styrofoam is not biodegradable is not the only issue with it. The environmental effects of Styrofoam are numerous. Let’s examine the three main consequences of Styrofoam.
- Styrofoam in landfills
- Toxic Pollutants from Styrofoam
- Styrofoam Impact on Animals
- Styrofoam is not Biodegradable
- Marine Pollution
- The Effects of Styrofoam on Human Health
1. Styrofoam in landfills
Thirty percent of landfills worldwide are full of products made of Styrofoam. This is a highly concerning number because landfills are filling up quickly. Every day, almost 1,369 tonnes of Styrofoam end up in American landfills.
Many towns and nations, including California, Seattle, Washington, Manila, Philippines, Toronto, Canada, Paris, France, Portland, Oregon, and Taiwan, have outlawed the commercial use of Styrofoam due to its detrimental consequences.
2. Toxic Pollutants from Styrofoam
Because it can be mistaken for food by animals, Styrofoam can seriously harm species once it enters the maritime environment.
Furthermore, Styrofoam comprises harmful ingredients like benzene and styrene. The hard, microscopic polystyrene beads formed by suspension polymerization can decompose into hazardous microbeads in the water, which could contaminate the marine food chain and eventually human nutrition.
Styrene, an ingredient in Styrofoam, contaminates food and beverages served in Styrofoam containers. The same container releases toxic air pollutants that damage landfills and destroy the ozone layer when it is exposed to sunshine.
Significant amounts of ozone are released into the atmosphere during the production of Styrofoam, which can negatively affect the environment and respiratory systems.
In addition, billions of Styrofoam cups used annually at convenience stores, restaurants, and lunchrooms wind up in landfills, causing environmental pollution.
3. Styrofoam Impact on Animals
One of the worst waste materials on the globe today, Styrofoam has a detrimental effect on the ecosystem.
Animals that scavenge food from dumps suffer injury from Styrofoam. Typically, Styrofoam products disintegrate easily into tiny fragments that might suffocate animals.
4. Styrofoam is not Biodegradable
Polystyrene, an ingredient in Styrofoam, degrades so slowly that it is not considered a biodegradable material.
As for how long styrofoam takes to break down, most polystyrene that winds up in landfills can take 500–1 million years to break down, according to Styrofoam Facts.
Because of its strong atomic bonds, Styrofoam is an extremely stable substance. Because of this stability, the plastic resists acids, bases, and water. Its extended shelf life further contributes to its cost-effectiveness and convenience for enterprises.
The greatest drawback of this chemical stability is that, once in the environment, it might persist for generations because it takes an extremely long time to decompose.
Scientists have discovered that Styrofoam is susceptible to photodegradation, a reaction caused by sunshine. The plastic’s exterior layer is impacted by constant sun exposure, which discolors and transforms it into a powder. Thin Styrofoam packaging may degrade as a result of this process in a few years.
However, such a breakdown is not possible for Styrofoam items that are enclosed in a landfill and protected from light.
5. Marine Pollution
The inability of Styrofoam to break down causes additional problems. Styrofoam is lightweight and delicate, so it frequently blows out of waste disposal facilities and into open waterways, public drain systems, and the ocean.
The material might fragment into tiny pieces on its journey and be ingested by marine life, which could be dangerous or fatal. In addition, it is difficult to manage and collect in the water, and if left unchecked, it could harm the travel and tourism sectors.
In 2006, the United Nations Environment Program calculated that 46,000 floating plastic bits are present in every square mile of ocean.
6. The Effects of Styrofoam on Human Health
Because styrene can seep out of the foam and into food or beverages that come into contact with it, styrofoam is not thought to be safe for human health.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified styrene as a potential human carcinogen and has been connected to several health concerns, such as neurological system impacts, respiratory disorders, and developmental abnormalities in children.
Apart from the possible health consequences of being exposed to styrene, the production and disposal of styrofoam may potentially have adverse effects on human health. Not only does the process of producing styrene release dangerous chemicals into the air and water, but it can also emit pollutants when styrofoam is disposed of in landfills or burned.
The chemicals used to make styrofoam have been connected to several illnesses, including obesity, thyroid disturbance, and growth retardation.
Furthermore, aquatic species may absorb the broken-down Styrofoam particles that enter our water systems, and eventually, these organisms may ascend the food chain and reach humans. These particles are hazardous to reproduction and can cause cancer if consumed.
Lastly, what steps can we take to address the Styrofoam issue? The primary way to address the Styrofoam issue is to identify and employ substitute materials. According to the Earth Resource Foundation, recycled paper goods are the ideal substitute if your workplace isn’t able to use reusable plates.
Comparing paper recycling to Styrofoam also results in savings overall and in the preservation of forests. Paper goods are environmentally safe and biodegradable. Paper is useful for product packaging and shipment since it is easily recyclable.
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A passion-driven environmentalist by heart. Lead content writer at EnvironmentGo.
I strive to educate the public about the environment and its problems.
It has always been about nature, we ought to protect not destroy.