Purpose of this article:
I want to approach this topic without a preconceived conclusion and without assumptions. And I want to present a concise summary of all my findings so you can have a better picture of the situation and can have a jumping off point to do your own research. I am also researching for my own benefit, as I'm trying to decide whether to purchase a recycled polystyrene product.
Resources are listed after the comment section.
Styrofoam is actually a brand-specific name for protruded (or expanded) polystyrene, EPS. And while the light, airy, white waterproof substance may be what we generally think of, polystyrene actually comes in many forms, non expanded and expanded. Here are a few things that are composed of polystyrene:
red solo cups
some insulated cooler
For the purpose of this article, we'll mostly focus on EPS, though some recycling programs lump the different forms of polystyrene together.
It's pretty easy to argue that, while a useful product, polystyrene is not sustainable and not eco-friendly. It is produced from petroleum (a non sustainable resource), it does not biodegrade and it does not break down in the presence of sun, air or water, meaning that it lasts for a very long time. Even if you don't buy into the health concerns about food and polystyrene interacting, you can't deny that there are more sustainable materials available.
But, while some cities are banning the use of EPS, the material is likely not going away anytime soon. So what do we do about it?
It sits. And sits. And sits. For a VERY long time. This material takes centuries to fully break down. It may, however, break into small pieces, which is pointed to as a major marine pollutant. Tiny pieces of polystyrene blow off of landfills, curbsides and etc and end up in bodies of water. Fish and other foragers may eat these particles. The polystyrene does not break down in their digestive systems and leads to clogged digestive tracks and subsequent starvation.
Some argue that another concern is this material often contains benzene, a known human carcinogen and styrene, a possible carcinogen. Studies have explored the possibility that polystyrene products and the disposal of these products leach potentially harmful materials into soil, water and the air. I haven't researched these studies in depth, but personally I feel it's definitely worth considering.
I have also found information in defense of styrene. With a few studies saying styrene is not proven to be carcinogenic and it does not last long when released into the environment.
The only definitive conclusions? It's not the most sustainable or eco-friendly option. And it's definitely something to pay attention to and research regarding health concerns.
So the next question becomes, how do we deal with polystyrene waste? Many communities do not recycle it because it's not very cost efficient. But when it is recycled, it typically goes something like this:
It's cleaned (maybe). If it's going to be cleaned it's often ground into small pieces and blasted with water.
It's densified. Compacting is also often done as a first step in order to make it more economical to transport. There are three main ways to compress the material:
It is ground, compressed or both,
it's melted down with heat or
it's chemically dissolved, often with limonene.
Once compacted it is ground into smaller bits, stretched into strands and then sliced into uniform pellets than can be used as raw material.
Let's evaluate this question as we go through the process.
Water is being used in the process. If it's nonpotable water and the run-off is dealt with appropriately, I'm comfortable giving this step a thumbs up.
When the product is densified using an exclusively pressure-based machine process, it may be fairly eco-friendly. All that is used is the energy needed to power the machines that deliver high pressure to piles of EPS until it is compacted into dense bricks.
Heating EPS is contentious, with some parties claiming it is safe to burn under certain conditions and others saying it is obviously toxic and should never be burned
Initially when I started my research, I found certain sources pointing to burning polystyrene as a viable heat-to-energy process. Which seemed odd to me, being contradictory to everything I learned as a kid. "DON'T BURN STYROFOAM" was implanted in my little pyromaniac brain. And I never did. So I assumed that municipal waste management must have a way to burn polystyrene that is different and safe. However, I couldn't find any information on this, leaving me unconvinced.
One the other hand, there are ample studies showing the potential toxic effects of burning the stuff. So I'm going to go on the safe side and say burning polystyrene is not eco-friendly.
When researching the process of breaking down EPS, I only came across one chemical that is used, limonene. That isn't to say that there might be others, and that those chemicals may be dangerous to consumers or to the environment. But limonene itself is deemed a "mildly toxic" chemical, in that it has little to no negative effects on the body. In fact, it is a major component of orange essential oils. As long as it isn't rancid, it has a green light for human interaction.
Additionally, the interaction between EPS and limonene is not a chemical reaction, but a physical reaction. Similar to the process of water dissolving sugar. The only concern is that the chemicals trapped in the foam during the "blowing out" process (what makes EPS so light and fluffy) may be released during the process of dissolving EPS in limonene. So it should happen in an enclosed environment and you should not be breathing in the air while the process is occurring. So chemical use in breaking down the foam likely isn't an issue.
The grinding down of bricks or polystyrene is likely a safe process as long as all the bits of it are well contained. If done in an unsecured devise, small bits of polystyrene are likely released into the environment, which we already heard, can have some nasty effects. But I don't see anything wrong with breaking it down in an enclosed environment using only the energy needed to power the machine.
The part of the final process that concerns me is the likely use of heat to form these pieces of compressed polystyrene into uniform pellets and then into a product. If we believe that heating polystyrene is a potentially dangerous process, this is another instance where toxic chemicals or pollutants are released.
I read quite a few academic articles praising the process of dissolving EPS in a solvent like limonene or other acidic natural oils. These articles explain that once the EPS is dissolved, it can be separated from the oil. The oil is reused in the same dissolving process and the EPS itself can be remade into more EPS with little loss to the integrity of the material.
As always, this is a tough one. There were so many different leads I could have followed and I found myself spending hours at a time researching one small piece of the puzzle, and not coming to any definitive conclusions. I didn't exhaustively research the topic for this article, but I will continue to pursue clarity.
So here it is: I wish we didn't use polystyrene in so many unnecessary ways (like take out containers, coffee cups and other things that could easily be made out of more sustainable materials). But since we do, it builds up in landfills and it's not going away anytime soon. I do believe we should find a good way to recycle it and implement those processes.
There are definitely ways in which recycling polystyrene could cause issues for those working on the process and for the environment. It seems like heat is the least ideal, but most widely used method. Physical processes like compressing the foam and dissolving it do seem relatively benign.
Before I purchase a recycled polystyrene product, I'll ask the company these questions:
What is your process? Do you use heat to melt the polystyrene?
Do you believe your workers are safe from toxic fumes?
Do you release bits of polystyrene or other chemicals into the local environment?
Are your products low in VOCs? What about the paint and finishes added to the plastic?
Obviously most companies would be reluctant to admit to any issues here, but asking these questions may bring attention to potential problems. And who knows, maybe you'll get answers you like!
One reason to buy these products, is the lack of new resources being used. Often times, EPS is recycled into wood substitutes or it is replacing other virgin plastics.
I also feel that it is necessary to find a way to reduce polystyrene buildup in landfills. We're going to run out of room eventually, and we better start trying to solve the problem now.
The main reason I am deciding to purchase a recycled polystyrene product is because I believe this is a good way to show the industry that it is worth it to invest in research and development or recycling techniques and renewable resources. If we consumers show that we are interested in recycled products and better recycling processes, companies will be more inclined to invest resources into it. I want to support companies who are trying, who are innovating in renewability.
What is styrofoam?
What happens if it's not recycled?
How is it recycled?
Is it environmentally friendly to recycle polystyrene?
Thanks for reading.
What are your thoughts? Would you buy
a recycled polystyrene product?
(1) USA Today, More cities ban polystyrene foam, citing environment
HouseholdHacker on Youtube shows dissolving styrofoam with acetone and making plastic:
Video walking you through several different processes for recycling polystyrene:
Video of an EPS melting machine:
Santa Luzia polystyrene recycling process:
Video showing polystyrene recycling process:
A Youtube add for styrofoam recycling equipment:
A video showing a quebec polystyrene recycling facility:
Company Waste to Waves shows polystyrene recycling machine:
A video showing a Japanese company recycling plastic using limonene:
Sustainable Investment Group article on recycling polystyrene:
Michael Bloch gives tips for recyling polystyrene:
DART article regarding Healthy & Safety of their products:https://www.dartcontainer.com/environment/health-safety/
The Styrene Forum's defense of styrene:
Some guy talking about why styrofoam is bad:http://businessbarbados.com/trending/green-business/the-dangers-of-polystyrene/
eHow explaining what are the results of burning styrofoam:
A research article exploring a renewable recycling of polystyrene:
Sutterlin, PHD explains why dissolving EPS in limonene is a green solution to reducing waste:
EPS Industry Alliance discusses recyclability and sustainability of EPS
Cancer.org explains the risks of benzene:
World Health Organization paper extolling benzene as a public health concern:
EPA update on the carcinogenic effects of benzene:
An industry report explaining a new EPS dissolving system for sale to schools & companies:
A kids education site explaining the molecular composition of polystyrene:
Undergraduate paper from a Calpoly student exploring polystyrene recycling:
Dart, a polystyrene manufacturer, debunks polystyrene urban legends:
For whatever reason this law firm writes about polypropylene under heat:
A medical blog written by Andrew Weil, M.D. discusses styrofoam's health effects:
Some random site about polystyrene disposal:
A public municipal recycling center explaining EPS recycling:
Wisconsin's DNR explaning that EPS cannot be burned even in municipal landfills:
two college kids presenting their reasons why polystyrene should be banned:
How Stuff Works explains polystyrene recycling:
British Plastic Federation explanation of kerbside recycling in Britian: