Styrofoam is closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam and is usually called ‘Blue Board’. It is manufactured as an insulation board and can be used in roofs, walls, and also structures like water barriers and thermal insulation. The material is light blue in colour, but the term is used worldwide to refer to one white material, made of polystyrene (that is expanded). You can also buy this expanded polystyrene as styrofoam sheets or even styrofoam containers.
What is Styrofoam Made of?
Styrofoam is made of a petroleum-based product that is known as styrene, and it is refined into polystyrene through polymerization followed by the addition of a hydrofluorocarbon agent. This combination lets it extrude and expand until the foam board is formed.
This polystyrene foam is used for craft applications and is known for the hard sound that it makes when it has been cut or a part of it is torn off, and the material is also rather rough. It is also found to be moderately soluble in cyanoacrylate, many organic solutions, and even in the solvents and propellants of spray paint.
Dow’s Chemical Physics Lab, which was led by Ray McIntire, found a method through which to make foamed polystyrene in the 1940s. They actually rediscovered a method that was originally used by Carl Georg Munters and managed to get an exclusive license to his patent in America. Dow adopted the method used by Munters to make significant amounts of extruded polystyrene as a moisture-resistant closed-cell foam. They also filed a patent on this specific adaptation in the year 1947.
Uses of Styrofoam
Styrofoam is made of 98% air, and this makes it buoyant, lightweight, and extremely useful. Dow produced and patented styrofoam that is used for building materials, including pipe insulation and types of building insulating sheathing. The R-value of this materials’ insulation is said to be five per inch.
Styrofoam can also be used under structures like roads in order to avoid the soil disturbances that occur in the winters due to freezing and thawing. It can also be used as a structural insulated panel for the usage of craft products and even by florists. Please note that styrofoam for craft application is usually found in green and white colour, but the Dow Insulation one is blue in colour. The craft made of this material also includes styrofoam sculptures.
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The downside to this material, despite its great usefulness, is that it is not known how long it takes for this material to biodegrade. Some estimate that it can take up to 500 years, and this is with the limited options that there are for recycling it.
Styrofoam, when used with food products and heated, will release into the food certain toxic chemicals that will cause contamination and can be disastrous to human health. It even creates harmful air pollutants when it is exposed to sunlight, and it can contaminate landfills in which it is discarded and even cause depletion of the ozone layer. This means that Styrofoam is a type of waste that is harmful to the environment. This is having a large and adverse impact on the ecological system of the planet on various levels.
Styrofoam poses a threat to the environment and just in the U.S landfills, there are about 1,369 tons of it being buried. Landfills are therefore filling up quickly with it, and this is a material that takes up more space. In fact, in landfill space across the world, styrofoam takes up 25-30% of the space. In 2006, according to an environmental group, about 135 tons of polystyrene waste was being disposed of in Hong Kong landfills every day.
Many countries have therefore implemented a ban on its commercial usage for its environmental impact, and this includes certain places in the USA, Canada, France, Philippines, Taiwan, etc.
Impact on Animals
Styrofoam can cause a great deal of harm to all the animals that consume food from landfills. Since these products can be broken apart into smaller pieces very easily, it becomes a choking hazard to these creatures.
Styrofoam is said to be unsinkable and has the ability to maintain its form due to the air present in its structure. As mentioned, it does not even break down or degrade over time. It can only be incinerated at temperatures that are extremely high and will only release carbon and a small amount of water as byproducts. However, if a specialised incinerator is not used and it is burned in a normal fire, it will let out pollutants like carbon monoxide.
It was reported that in the year 1986, the fifth largest producers of toxic waste were the Styrofoam manufacturers. There are more than 90,000 workers that get exposed to the effects of styrene (which is what polystyrene is made of), every single year in companies and industries that work with fibreglass and rubber.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the Environmental Protection Agency even classify it as a possible human carcinogen. Exposure to styrene includes gastrointestinal problems and irritation to the respiratory tract, eyes, and skin.
While the scope for recycling styrofoam is limited, it is still important to do this as much as possible. There are businesses that collect this material for reuse and recycling. The other option to avoid the problems this material creates is to go for eco-friendly products that could be an alternative. Even food and packaging industries use alternatives, and this can help conserve the landfills and reduce pollution.