Written by Aaron Huang
Whether it’s to-go food packaging, lightweight cushioning for fragile deliveries, or insulation in your home, we’ve all seen Styrofoam in action, one way or another. Polystyrene - the polymer that Styrofoam is made from - is one of the most popular commodity plastics, but there’s no question about its negative impact on our environment. We’ve seen it washed up on the shore, floating along river beds and blowing through the air. In 2020 the U.S. alone generated 292 million tons of municipal solid waste, of which 69 million tons were recycled and 25 million tons composted. One hundred forty-six million tons ended up in landfills, 30% of which was EPS.
There’s plenty of clutter online around the global waste crisis. Whether you’re reducing plastic, recycling relevant materials, or opting for biodegradable Styrofoam alternatives, it can be challenging to determine the right thing to do.
Perhaps one of the most significant avenues for misinformation is biodegradable packaging materials, particularly when it comes to Styrofoam. That’s why we’ve put together a comprehensive guide outlining the four facts you need to know to make informed choices in the future. Better yet, we unpack the all-important question, “Is Styrofoam biodegradable at all?
What Exactly Is Styrofoam?
Styrofoam is a form of Polystyrene. By definition, Polystyrene is a transparent, amorphous, non-polar commodity thermoplastic. It’s often turned into foams, films, and sheets because it’s easy to process. On the upside, Polystyrene has excellent resistance to diluted acids and bases, you can mold it with ease, and it delivers optical clarity. On the downside, it has poor oxygen and UV resistance, and it’s brittle, giving low impact to strength.
Styrofoam is considered Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) consisting of micro-beads containing pentane. This foamed version of Polystyrene boasts high impact resistance, excellent processability, low weight, and thermal insulation. This is why we use it to create disposable drinking cups, trays, fast-food containers, and cushioning for various packaged goods.
What Does It Mean For Something To Be Biodegradable?
There’s no question around the improved awareness about the detrimental impact of plastic on the environment. Environmentally friendly alternatives have emerged, with more and more countries banning single-use plastic. Plus, mainstream media paints the picture of “biodegradable” products as the ultimate “green” alternatives.
While it is progress that plastic waste awareness is something to get excited about, it’s essential to understand some myths around biodegradable packaging, especially regarding Styrofoam, aka EPS.
By definition, biodegradation is the breakdown of organic matter by microorganisms like bacteria and fungi with the help of sunlight, moisture, and other natural processes. It means it can disintegrate or decompose by slowly breaking down into smaller pieces that are essentially unseen. In essence, if something is “biodegradable,” people believe that you can throw it away without causing any harm.
While some biodegradable plastics can be broken down by microbes and turned into biomass, water, and carbon dioxide, the large majority of plastics, including Styrofoam, break down into microplastics which are extremely dangerous. Only a minority of the plastics we interact with are bio-benign. While this seems a bit confusing, it is critical to understand the distinction so that we make the right choices. Let’s unpack it in more detail.
Is Styrofoam Biodegradable? Five Facts You Should Know.
It May Break Down, But It Doesn’t Disappear
In short, no, it’s not. But it’s a lot more complex than that. Technically, biodegradable Styrofoam can break down to a point where you can no longer see it with the naked eye. Styrofoam breaks down when it reaches 30º Celsius, similar to seawater temperatures in places like Malaysia or along the U.S. Pacific Coast.
Water samples collected from this region revealed alarmingly high levels of styrene monomer, styrene dimers, and styrene trimers, all of which are Styrofoam products. These eye-opening findings were published in an article from ScienceNews, unpacking the dire effects of styrene monomer in particular. It’s classified as genotoxic and carcinogenic, contributing to diseases like Cancer.
More recently, scientists have uncovered microplastics from biodegradable polyester in seawater and freshwater. Sunlight promotes microplastic formation meaning biodegradable plastics made from wood pulp and corn actually produce more microplastics than non-biodegradable polymers.
It’s Not Easy To Recycle Styrofoam
If you’re looking to recycle Styrofoam at home, there are a few things you need to wrap your head around. Most importantly, there are different forms of Styrofoam, and only some of them are recyclable.
The Styrofoam must be made with Expanded Polystyrene. Recycling facilities won’t accept any other types of Polystyrene. Unfortunately, most Styrofoam containers you get with to-go food fall into this category. Thanks to the dye contaminating the process, you will also struggle to recycle colored Styrofoam.
If you are looking to recycle Styrofoam, look for the correct code. The EPS number is 6, and you’ll need to ensure you remove any stickers, sellotape, or dirt before taking it to your closest facility and only if they accept it.
While some Styrofoams can be recycled, it’s unlikely that all local plants have the necessary equipment. More often than not, it’s transported to a centralized plant, making it an incredibly costly exercise. It means that many recycling companies run at a loss, making them less incentivized to push for Styrofoam products.
You Can’t Use Recycled Styrofoam In The Food Industry
In most cases, recycled Styrofoam or Polystyrene can’t be used for products in contact with food. Why? There are growing health concerns around the material itself. Although it’s sterilized during the recycling process, it’s often used to create packaging for other materials. You’re always going to need new EPS for food packaging, inevitably reversing any positive impact the recycling process has on the system as a whole.
Can You Compost Styrofoam?
Some plastics are compostable, meaning microbes break them down into compost, similar to food waste. Again, this doesn’t eliminate those microplastics that riddle our soil and water.
That’s where sustainable materials companies such as Cruz Foam come in. By prioritizing return to earth-friendly materials, Cruz Foam has created the ideal compostable foam packaging to replace Styrofoam altogether. The natural bio-benign foam solutions are the epitome of packaging made by nature, dissolved by nature. Unlike other protective packaging materials, Cruz Foam has no adverse effects on the soil quality after the degradation process. Better yet, it produces high-quality organic waste which can be used as fertilizer.