Although people realize that Styrofoam is a good deal because it preserves food, medicine, and many other benefits, few know how detrimental it is for the environment. Find out the impact Styrofoam has on the planet as well on human health.
Styrofoam is technically known as "Expanded PolyStyrene" or EPS
Styrofoam is a synthetic product that comes from petroleum. It is composed of 98% air and 2% plastic. It is the result of the fusion of those substances molecules which as filled with air.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not look kindly on Styrofoam because the material, besides being a pollutant, is not good for people's health.
The agency found that permanent exposure to polystyrene - which releases toxic gases - causes headaches, hearing loss, and neurological problems.
In other words, in the manufacturing of Styrofoam, more than 50 chemical by-products are released, contaminating the air, the water and, to add to the damage, the communities near the factories.
Just like plastic, the marine fauna suffers from the discarded Styrofoam. Fish, turtles, whales, and dolphins mistake microplastics and small pieces of Styrofoam for food. Therefore, those who consume these marine animals, also run the risk of poisoning.
According to Douglas McCauley, professor of Marine Biology at the University of California, the two types of pollution caused by Styrofoam that most impact marine fauna, are:
- Mechanical: easier to spot. The Styrofoam foam goes straight into the animals' intestines, which can kill them in a short time.
- Chemical: This has to do with the absorbing property of the Styrofoam that acts as a small polluting sponge, capturing all the compounds that most contaminate the ocean.
Styrofoam production is expensive, but the cost-benefit is worth it!
A little bit of Styrofoam history
Styrofoam was invented in 1941, by Dow Chemical (USA). To make it happens, small quantities of polystyrene polymer are needed, which are mixed with heated chemicals. After cooling down, the product can be expanded up to 50 times its original size.
After the product is molded, it goes through a new expansion process that aims to "melt" even more the balls (beads), so that there is no leakage, so that its insulating function is perfect.
The mass resulting from this process is put into molds for:
- sealing for sound purposes
- decoration in general
- frames for cups and trays
- skirting boards
- profiles for construction
- plastic soles for shoes
- inputs for lightweight concrete
- hangers, vases, rulers, among others.
Nonetheless, some places in the US, no longer allow the use of Styrofoam!
Recently, a bill was passed in New York, prohibiting the use of Styrofoam in hotels, restaurants, cafeterias, and businesses (just like toward plastic products). Whoever offers Styrofoam in packaging, cups or plates, will be fined.
Why has Styrofoam come to be considered harmful to the environment?
When it comes to how long does it take Styrofoam to decompose, most of the polystyrene that ends up in landfills can take anything between 500 to 1 million years to decompose.
In other words, the biggest downside to this chemical stability is that it takes forever to break down, and therefore, once in the environment, it can remain for generations.
Recycling: an expensive process, but imperative
Just like plastic, Styrofoam can be recycled!
The main obstacle in Styrofoam recycling is its high cost. Hundreds of studies have shown that about 2.5 million tons of Styrofoam are consumed annually around the world.
Besides high cost, the recycled Styrofoam does not have a good outlet for the collectors, because the product is not always accepted in the cooperatives.
3 methods to recycle Styrofoam:
1 - MECHANICAL RECYCLING
After being separated, the product is cleaned, and so it goes through a process of gas removal, remaining only the flakes. After melted and granulated, it becomes raw material again up to be used in the manufacturing of various types of products.
2 - ENERGY RECYCLING
This method uses Styrofoam for energy recovery, as the material has a high calorific value.
3 - CHEMICAL RECYCLING
Styrofoam is reused to manufacture oils and gases.