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Polystyrene foam

Polystyrene foam is a scourge.

Broken into chunks, this thermoplastic can waft through the air, float in our streams, be mistaken by wildlife for food (and clogs their digestive systems) and is invariably terribly slow to degrade.

Plystyrene foam won't break down for hundreds of years. Some estimates are 1,000 years or more.

Polystyrene foam won’t break down for hundreds of years. Some estimates are 1,000 years or more.

There is no denying its insulative qualities and value in shipping products and materials. But like all non-organic matter it can be both an eyesore and a health nuisance. Technically, it is an expanded plastic foam (aka EPS. Don’t ask me why there’s the ‘S’ and not an ‘F’). It is created from a number of dangerous chemicals such as benzene and styrene, according to the Sierra Club.

It is one of my chief targets. I’ve seen the ‘peanut’ variety blow across roadways like drifting snow. I’ve picked up rolls and 50 foot strips of the stuff, rescued big chunks from storm drains and snagged more McDonalds, Burger King and Chick-fil-A cups (among many others) than I can count. I hate it once it’s released into the environment.

According to the Earth Resource Foundation, “Polystyrene is a petroleum-based plastic made from the styrene monomer. Most people know it under the name Styrofoam, which is actually the trade name of a polystyrene foam product used for housing insulation.”

Recycling polystyrene foam is possible but not widespread. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “… Some recycling of polystyrene is taking place, but is limited by its low weight-to volume ratio and its value as a commodity.”

And you thought I was kidding about the 50 ft. roll of polystyrene. Here it is unfurled. This could have just as well have been tangled around tree limbs along a stream.

And you thought I was kidding about the 50 ft. roll of polystyrene. Here it is partially unfurled. This could have just as well have been tangled around tree limbs along a stream.

And it is harmful. In 1986 “the EPA identified 57 chemical byproducts that were released into the air through its production and many of the pollutants are known to cause serious health effects such as the reduced functioning of the lungs and nervous systems.” And there’s more damning news from the EPA: “Every year Americans waste enough polystyrene that it could circle the Earth 426 times.”

For you science types, here’s what you need to know about the manufacture of polystyrene: Styrene readily polymerizes to polystyrene by a relatively conventional free radical chain mechanism. Either heat or initiators will begin the polymerization. Initiators thermally decompose, thereby forming active free radicals that are effective in starting the polymerization process. Typically initiators used in the suspension process include benzoyl peroxide and di-tert-butyl per-benzoate. Potassium persulfate is a typical initiator used in emulsion polymerizations. In the presence of inert materials, styrene monomer will react with itself to form a homopolymer. Styrene monomer will react with a variety of other monomers to form a number of copolymers. Polystyrene is an odorless, tasteless, rigid thermoplastic.

There are two basic types of polystyrene, the commercial forms of which may well land alongside your path.

The EPA says “Packaging applications use crystal polystyrene biaxial film and include meat and vegetable trays, blister packs, and other packaging where transparency is required. Extruded polystyrene foam sheets are formed into egg carton containers, meat and poultry trays, and fast food containers requiring hot or cold insulation. Solid polystyrene sheets are formed into drinking cups and lids, and disposable packaging of edibles. Injection molded grades of polystyrene are used extensively in the manufacture of cosmetic and personal care containers, jewelry and photo equipment boxes, and photo film packages. Other formed polystyrene items include refrigerator door liners, audio and video cassettes, toys, flower pots, picture frames, kitchen utensils, television and radio cabinets, home smoke detectors, computer housings, and profile moldings in the construction/home-building industry.”

It may be Greek to you and me, but the consequences are as plain as day: when you see polystyrene foam, pick it up.

3 Comments on Polystyrene foam

  1. Today, I went to the beach front with my kids. I found a sea shell and gave it
    to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and screamed.
    There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is totally off topic
    but I had to tell someone!

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