The properties of Styrofoam make it a popular material in lots of different industries. From protecting food products as they travel half way across the globe to insulating the pipes under your kitchen sink. However, like all materials, its ‘green’ credentials are under the spotlight as more people become environmentally aware. How does Styrofoam fare – is it bad for the environment?
Firstly, what is Styrofoam?
Styrofoam is a foam-like plastic made from styrene monomers. The word ‘Styrofoam’ is used by many as an interchangeable term for polystyrene. In fact, Styrofoam is the brand name for specific type of polystyrene.
So, is Styrofoam bad for the environment?
Styrofoam is non-biodegradable
A material is said to be biodegradable if it can be broken down by micro-organisms into its component parts. Natural materials can return to nature by this breakdown process. Although derived from fossil fuels, Styrofoam is very much a human creation – it will, therefore, not biodegrade. Like other plastics, it will break into smaller and smaller pieces but not technically ‘biodegrade’.
Styrofoam, and polystyrene, often ends up in the sea where it will remain indefinitely. Living by the coast, there is rarely a time I walk along the beach and don’t see some amongst the sand or floating in amongst the waves. This often gets mistaken for food by marine animals causes all sorts of issues – from internal blockages to fertility problems.
It is awkward to dispose of – Styrofoam is not easily recyclable
Styrofoam, and polystyrene in general, can be recycled. Large retailers and manufacturers who use a lot of the stuff can get it recycled in bulk. However, the equipment needed is not generally available in your standard household recycling facility. Unfortunately, it is not usually included in a regular curbside collection. It should be noted that facilities vary from country to county and city to city. So, you should check with your local authorities for up-to-date information!
Styrofoam is made from fossil fuels
Styrofoam, and polystyrene in general, is derived from petroleum. As well as being a non-renewable resource, when extracting them from the environment they can have a significant negative impact including water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and soil degradation. Styrofoam clearly does not keep the fossil fuel industry afloat on its own but it certainly contributes to the problem.
But its not all bad news…
Polystyrene can be broken down by sunlight
A recent study suggests that polystyrenes, such as Styrofoam, do not hang around for quite as long as initially thought. Scientists have found that polystyrene actually gets chemically broken down by sunlight into dissolved organic carbon and trace amounts of carbon dioxide. The original form then ceases to exist. Although this is more positive than originally thought, it reduces the amount of time from potentially thousands of years to mere decades or centuries! Still a long time for it to cause havoc in the eco-systems it exists in.
Styrofoam makes effective packaging – lightweight and protective
The vast majority of Styrofoam, and polystyrene, is actually just air! This makes it extremely lightweight and a more eco-friendly option for transporting goods. Less weight equals less fuels used in transit which, in turn, leads to lesser carbon emissions. Its protective and insulating properties also mean that fresh produce, such as meat and fish, can reach its destination safely. The effectiveness of the packaging means less waste at it’s destination – always a positive.
There are now fully biodegradable alternatives!
As with most areas of life, companies are continually innovating and finding new ways to do things that are kinder to our planet. Fully biodegradable Styrofoam-like foams, such as Green Cell Foam, are now available. These have similar properties to the synthetic varieties but instead of hanging around for centuries they can be dissolved and washed down the drain in minutes. These types of packaging can, literally, disappear before your eyes in water as opposed to living on indefinitely in landfill. Alternatively, it can be added to the compost pile as a ‘brown’ carbon-rich ingredient. Contributing to a nutrient-rich fertilizer as well as saving you money – a win-win!
The bottom line
Although it does have some eco-friendly properties, Styrofoam presents some significant issues for the planet. Weighing up both sides, it could be said that Styrofoam is bad for the environment. From supporting the highly damaging fossil fuel industry to causing havoc due to its inability to biodegrade. Despite more eco-friendly options becoming available, such as biodegradable Styrofoam-like material, the standard stuff is still widely used. Avoid it if you can!