Pop! Goes the Polystyrene
Styrofoam is no friend to our environment
There must be something in the water in high schools across the world nowadays. How can it be that high school students are solving some of recycling’s biggest mysteries- mysteries that have stumped multiple degree-holding scientists? When most awkward teens are worrying about pimples on their face, a pop quiz or who to ask to prom, Daniel Burd and Tseng I-Ching were busy researching microorganisms that eat plastic and Styrofoam. Last year in May, Daniel Burd received attention not just from his home country of Canada but news media worldwide for his discovery of polyethylene (plastic)-eating microorganisms (Sphingomonas and Pseudomonas). In the environment, plastic can take hundreds and hundreds of years to decompose, but with Burd’s research, he predicts that plastic can decompose in as little as three months. Impressive for a 16-year old.
Tseng I-Ching must have channeled Daniel Burd and his science project because just this past May she dominated the world’s largest science fair (the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair) with her discovery of polystyrene (Styrofoam)-eating bacterium which is extracted from mealworm beetles. Tseng, a 16-year old high school student from Taiwan, worked with 500 mealworm beetles isolating the bacterium that decomposes polystyrene found in their digestive tracts. Although she did not mention how long it takes for the bacterium to decompose polystyrene, finding another way to decompose Styrofoam is an amazing feat.
What is Styrofoam?
Styrofoam is expanded plastic foam (EPS), specifically an expanded version of the number six plastic polystyrene, used for many different functions involved with insulation. Although Styrofoam is one product of polystyrene created by the Dow Chemical Company, we associate all fluffy, white material as Styrofoam. Expanded Polystyrene made its debut back in WWII as material for floating water-proof rafts; however, the uses for this plastic have greatly diversified since then. We see it being used daily and in mass quantities as take-out containers at restaurants, as coffee cups in the office, as insulation for walls, and as packing material. We use Styrofoam for just about anything because it’s cheap, effective, and lightweight (98% air).
Why is EPS dangerous?
…To your health
According to a study revised in 2000 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), styrene is dangerous when broken down. Short-term exposure to styrene can cause eye and mucous membrane irritation, and gastrointestinal harm. Long-term exposure to styrene is much more dangerous, causing headaches, depression, fatigue, weakness, and hearing loss. Some studies have shown that long-term exposure to styrene decreases birth rates, increases the risk for leukemia and lymphoma, and has devastating effects on the liver, kidney, and stomach. If you have to use EPS, never heat it because doing so releases toxic fumes that increase the risk of health problems.
…To the environment
Benzene, a very toxic chemical labeled as a carcinogen, is extracted from coal; extracting coal from mines is very damaging to the environment and contributes to land erosion. Besides the dangers of producing EPS, Styrofoam takes hundreds of years to decompose naturally. There are few known methods of breaking it down quickly. Because EPS is an end product, it cannot be recycled into different products, only reincarnated as itself. This limits recycling options since the process of melting EPS into a liquid state and then reforming it is too labor-intensive and toxic for recycling centers to handle. Most recycling centers do not accept EPS because they do not have the technology available to reprocess it, so people just throw it away with their trash. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPS accounts for less than one percent of the solid waste stream by weight. However, you have to remember that EPS is 98% air and all volume which means that EPS accounts for much more than one percent of the solid waste stream by surface area. Another reason why recycling centers do not collect EPS is the cost- it’s expensive. Compared to recycling glass which costs usually less than $100 per ton, EPS costs around $3000 per ton to recycle. However, there are some recycling centers across the nation that do recycle EPS; you can find them online or by using Sierra Club Green Home’s Recycling Center Locator. One reason why people do not recycle EPS is because the requirements are too complex. Because EPS is used for many different things, recycling centers have many different rules and regulations for EPS as compared to paper or glass. Unfortunately, because of all these restrictions on EPS recycling, people have no choice but to throw away 25,000,000,000 Styrofoam coffee cups every year, enough to circle the Earth 436 times, which does not even include other EPS products.
When Styrofoam is not recycled, it ends up in landfills where it breaks down into small pieces allowing the wind to carry these thousands of pieces into the ocean and the environment, or it ends up in the oceans as large pieces that eventually break down into smaller pieces. Marine animals and birds mistake these little pieces of EPS as food causing a whole chain of events that eventually affects our health and the planet. EPS is toxic to humans and animals, and when we eat marine life that feed on it we are ingesting harmful chemicals.
How to solve the Styrofoam problem
…Don’t use Styrofoam
The easiest way to prevent EPS from leaking into the environment is to stop using it. Instead of Styrofoam coffee cups at the office, bring your own reusable mug or thermos. Instead of using Styrofoam plates, use reusable plates. For packing material consider biodegradable packing materials made with cornstarch or 100% recycled paper which can be found online. Consider using old newspapers, shredded cardboard, and even popcorn as alternatives to packing peanuts. We, the average consumers, aren’t the only culprits of using Styrofoam. Restaurants continue to choose EPS for take-out containers. One way to decrease the usage of Styrofoam at restaurants is to talk to the manager and show him or her alternatives to EPS such as biodegradable containers.
…Reuse Styrofoam as Loose Fill
Don’t know what to do with a large block of Styrofoam lying around in your garage? Shred it up and use the pieces for filling in bean bags or for potting plants. With EPS packing peanuts, just reuse them for your next package. You can also donate them to shipping stores.
A recent study by the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers found that 69 million pounds of EPS was recycled in the year 2008. Considering how light EPS is, 69 million pounds is quite a number. But millions of more pounds of EPS are thrown away in landfills. The number of recycling centers that accept EPS is growing. Check Sierra Club Green Home’s recycling locator for a center that accepts EPS near you.
Scientists at Sony discovered that limonene, an oil from the skin of citrus fruits, completely dissolves EPS which then can be used reused. Tseng discovered that bacteria from mealworms decomposes Styrofoam.
The future looks bright for more natural remedies to dissolve EPS — we just need to discover them.
The science world is eagerly waiting for the next teen scientist. Who will emerge as plastic’s worst nightmare?
By recycling Styrofoam or eliminating Styrofoam altogether, you will not be exposed to the toxins that it can give off, thus, reducing your chance of health risks associated with prolonged exposure.
…to your wallet
There are affordable alternatives to Styrofoam such as biodegradable packing material and biodegradable plates and bowls. You can even make your own biodegradable packing peanuts with cornstarch which is a safe and cheap alternative. If you are left with a Styrofoam container from a restaurant and have no idea what to do with it, try shredding the container apart into packing peanuts which saves you money on your next package.
…to the Earth
By recycling, reusing, or reducing EPS, the amount of it in landfills and in oceans will decrease which decreases the amount of tiny EPS particles being eaten by marine animals. The manufacturing of new Styrofoam will also decrease, thus limiting the amount of toxins such as benzene that are released into the environment.
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