What is Polystyrene? Is Polystyrene Environmentally Friendly?

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PolystyrenePolystyrene is an economical, impact-resistant, and versatile plastic material that is used in various consumer products. As a transparent, solid, and hard plastic, Polystyrene is often used in manufacturing products that need clarity, like laboratory ware and food packaging. Polystyrene is often combined with additives, rubber, colorants, or any other plastic to make automobile parts and appliances. People also make computer housings, office equipment, gardening pots, instrument panels, and the like from Polystyrene.

Polystyrene is also available in two foam materials known as Extruded Polystyrene (XPS) and Expanded Polystyrene (EPS). Foam Polystyrene offers great cushioning, strength, and insulating properties. With over 95% of air, foam polystyrene is used to make appliance insulation, home insulation, surfboards, lightweight, protective packaging, and road stabilization systems.

Polystyrene is usually made by polymerizing a building-block chemical known as styrene. Styrene is naturally found in foods like beef, strawberries, and coffee. Polystyrene is now the most popular plastic found in the market and is used in a variety of everyday products like –

  • Food packaging
  • Bean bags
  • DVD cases and CDs
  • Industry trays
  • Appliance Packaging
  • Electrical insulation
  • Plastic Cutlery

Polystyrene is incredibly flexible, which makes it ideal for packaging products. Moreover, it is affordable and fully recyclable.

Common Uses of Polystyrene

Polystyrene is available in several FDA-complaint grades and is 100% recyclable. It is widely used in several industries across the globe, including —

Appliances

Polystyrene is incredibly long-lasting, cost-effective, and flexible. Moreover, it doesn’t react with other elements or materials. Polystyrene is used in making blenders, refrigerator lining, ovens, vacuum cleaners, and microwaves.

Electronics

Polystyrene is used for computer and television housings. Additionally, it is used to manufacture various types of IT equipment.

Packaging

Polystyrene is extensively used as a packaging material to protect various types of consumer products. It prevents spoilage, breakage, or damage. From food packaging to cassette cases, Polystyrene is practically used everywhere.

Medical

The good sterilization feature and clarity of polystyrene make it ideal for a wide variety of medical applications. You can use polystyrene to make Petri dishes, tissue culture trays, test kit housings, and other medical equipment.

Insulation

Polystyrene foam is a lightweight material that offers exceptional thermal insulation. Polystyrene insulation being durable and inert is used in numerous applications like cold storage units, freezers, walls, roofing, and refrigerators.

Foodservice

Using polystyrene as a food packaging material is more cost-effective and keeps the food items fresh for longer. Additionally, polystyrene is safe and hygienic compared to other food packaging alternatives.

Now that we have covered the uses and benefits of polystyrene, let’s move on to the next common question — Is Polystyrene Environmentally friendly?

Environmental Impacts of Polystyrene

Environmentalists are often worried about the Environmental Impacts of Polystyrene. However, expanded polystyrene contains 98% air making it environmentally friendly. Additionally, no toxic substances are combined while manufacturing EPS.

EPS is 100% recyclable and takes up less than 1% of the total landfill weight. However, it may take hundreds of years to decompose which makes it essential to recycle all polystyrene products. EPS being non-biodegradable is often seen negatively but EPS will not contaminate the water or air. There are no harmless gases or toxic chemicals in EPS that can potentially harm our environment.

Additionally, there is little to zero pollution while manufacturing EPS. The primary source of energy during EPS production is steam. The water is recycled several times to cut down the water consumption and offer a more environmentally friendly EPS manufacturing process. All rejected materials or cut-offs are re-used to completely prevent the production of wastes. The completed product has 98% of air and only 2% of polystyrene cellular matrix.

However, if polystyrene finds its way into rubbish bins and landfill sites instead of getting recycled it may harm the environment. Polystyrene may be consumed by animals or fishes when the small components break down. This may enter the food chain and harm human health owing to the presence of styrene. This makes it essential to recycle all polystyrene products to reduce their carbon footprint considerably.

Recycling Trends of Polystyrene

Polystyrene has a low carbon footprint as it is fully recyclable. Being a thermoplastic, polystyrene can be easily molded or melted into different plastic products. Though polystyrene is non-biodegradable it is made up of 98% air which reduces its impact on the environment. The following process is usually followed while recycling polystyrene –

  1. Segregation: The first step is to separate the polystyrene products from other types of waste.
  2. Compaction: Once segregated, the EPS products are passed through a compactor to substantially reduce their volume. It is essential to know that some EPS compactor systems come with a 50:1 compaction ratio. This means that the system can curtail the volume of the EPS products by up to 98 percent.
  3. Shredding: Here, the large product pieces are finely shredded into flakes. The small pieces of EPS foam are then used as a cushioning material for fragile items. Some recycling EPS centers often skip this step and directly proceed to the extrusion process.
  4. Extrusion or Melting: The flakes generated in shredding are then forced through extruders. Here, they are heated, melted, and then cooled down. Once solidified, the resulting material can be used to manufacture different items. You can reheat or melt it again to produce DVD cases, clothes hangers, and other types of plastic products.

Summing Up

There are several breakthroughs in EPS recycling studies but most of them are still in the pilot stage. According to reports, EPS foam recycling has risen by a considerable rate in the last few years. More and more recycling centers are being set up worldwide to boost the polystyrene recycling rate.

Often manufacturing companies shy away from recycling EPS products as it is more cost-effective to make new polystyrene batches than to recycle them. Companies must try to install compactors in their business premises to make EPS foam products more environmentally friendly. Additionally, consumers must try to reuse all polystyrene products to reduce their carbon footprint.

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