Is foam biodegradable? ( 5 uses of styrofoam plastic).

This blog shall answer the question, ” is foam biodegradable?”. 

It shall also cover other areas such as:

  • Properties and uses of styrofoam.
  • Properties of polystyrene.
  • Biodegradation process.
  • Eco-friendliness of plastics.

Is foam biodegradable?

No, foam is not biodegradable. Foam is made from plastic polystyrene which is non-biodegradable.

Plastics are resistant to microbial degradation and are the main causes of environmental pollution.

Biodegradation occurs in naturally occurring organic materials that are derived from plants and animals.

Most synthetic materials are either partially degradable or completely non-biodegradable. 

Biodegradation is the process by which naturally occurring organic materials are broken down by microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi into small particles which are not harmful to the environment.

Biodegradation is carried out by different agents such as UV radiation, light, wind, and water but the most effective agents of biodegradation are bacteria and fungi.

Biodegradation occurs in three distinct stages: biodeterioration, bio-fragmentation, and assimilation.

The biodeterioration process loosens up the structure of the organic substance. For instance, the cell wall of plants is weakened by light, wind, water, and UV radiation.

Bio-fragmentation involves the breakdown of organic matter into smaller, nontoxic particles by bacteria and fungi, releasing water and carbon dioxide in the process.

Assimilation is the last stage of biodegradation and it involves the microorganisms taking up the products of bio-fragmentation into their biological machinery to be used to make energy.

Biodegradation can either involve the microorganisms using oxygen, aerobic biodegradation or it can involve the microorganisms which do not use oxygen, anaerobic biodegradation.

What is styrofoam?

Styrofoam is a trademark name for closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam (XPS).

Extruded polymers are produced through the process of plastic extrusion. The process involves melting down plastics such as polystyrene or polypropylene.

The plastic is put in a barrel in the form of either pellets, granules, or flakes. The plastic is then heated under very high temperature and pressure and the molten plastic is cooled into a dye which is then shaped and left to cool.

The shaped plastics are in the form of pipes, tubes, deck railings, window frames, wire insulators, and thermoplastic coatings.

The advantage of extrusion is that it produces plastics of desired shapes and lengths. The extrusion also helps in producing plastics integrated with other materials such as rubber.

Styrofoam has been used in the world in the following ways:

  • It is used to produce building materials such as building insulation and pipe insulation.
  • It is on roads to prevent soil disturbances.
  • It is used to make crafts.
  • It is used to make shapes used by florists.

Advantages of extruded polystyrene( styrofoam)

The following are the advantages of using extruded polystyrene.

  • It has high thermal insulation.
  • It has high strength.
  • It is resistant to many chemicals and solvents.
  • It has high durability of almost 40 years.
  • It can be used under a wide range of temperatures, approximately from -70 to 75⁰C.
  • It has minimal water absorption.
  • They are easy to cut and install using adhesives.
  • It is biostable; it is resistant to microbial degradation.

Disadvantages of using extruded polystyrene (styrofoam).

The following are the disadvantages of using styrofoam.

  • It is a hazardous substance, it is made from petrochemical plastics and therefore it produces toxic fumes and is also non-biodegradable, leading to environmental pollution.
  • It leaches into food and drinks.
  • It forms part of the environmental litter.

Styrofoam is produced from polystyrene plastic.

Polystyrene.

Polystyrene is a polymer of styrene monomer.

Styrene is a hydrocarbon obtained from crude oil and natural gas.

Polystyrene occurs in 2 forms; either solid or foam.

When it occurs as foam it is called styrofoam.

Properties of polystyrene.

The following are the properties of polystyrene.

  • It is brittle.
  • It is hard 
  • It has a low melting point.
  • It is chemically inert.
  • It is resistant to corrosion.
  • It is waterproof.
  • It is impermeable or gas.
  • It is non-biodegradable.

Uses of polystyrene.

Polystyrene is one of the most used plastics in industries and homes.

The uses of polystyrene include:

  • Making jewel cases for storage of optical devices such as CDs and DVDs.
  • Making containers.
  • Making bottles.
  • Making trays 
  • Making tumblers.
  • Making disposable cutlery.
  • Making egg plastic crates

The word styrofoam is used worldwide to refer to a different material that is usually white.

The white “styrofoam” is made from expanded polystyrene foam(EPS).

Eps plastic is a rigid, tough, closed-cell lightweight thermoplastic material.

It is made up of pre-expanded polystyrene beads.

Production of eps plastic involves:

  • Polystyrene is produced from styrene acquired from crude oil.
  • Polystyrene is then mixed with a foaming agent, pentane gas, at temperatures as high as 90⁰ Celsius.
  • Granules form as heating continues.
  • Foaming gas evaporates, infiltrating the beads.
  • The beads expand to almost 50 times their size.
  • Then they are let cool.

The eps formed are then made into different shapes and sizes depending on their target use.

  • Block molding is done for large blocks of eps plastic.
  • The shape molding process is done to produce custom shapes for small components.

Uses of eps plastic.

  • It is used for food packaging.
  • It is used for seed trays.
  • It is used for the packaging of fruits and vegetables.
  • It is used to store small electronic components.
  • It is used to protect and insulate refrigerators and freezers.

Advantages of eps plastic.

  • It is lightweight, with 98% of its weight being air and therefore it is easy to transport.
  • It is tough.
  • It has a thermal insulation property, protecting food stored in it from spoilage.
  • It is versatile and easily branded, and can be used for different purposes.
  • It is hygienic and safe- it is nontoxic and chemically inert and therefore fungi and bacteria do not grow on it.
  • It is waterproof, protecting goods stored in it 
  • It is cheap to acquire.

Eps and environment.

Eps is an eco-friendly plastic. The following properties make it good for the environment.

  • It is free of greenhouse gases such as chlorofluorocarbons, therefore, it has a low potential of causing global warming.
  • It is lightweight and therefore it requires low fuel for transportation.
  • Its manufacturing process has low pollution to the environment because steam is the main source of energy used and water is highly re-used.
  • It contains only 2% polystyrene plastic, and hence it has a low carbon content.
  • It can be recycled.
  • It can be disposed of by burning in an incinerator, hence no toxic gases are released into the environment.

Is styrofoam eco-friendly?

No, styrofoam is generally not an eco-friendly material although when compared to other plastics, it is relatively preferable.

Styrofoam is made from the plastic polymer polystyrene which is a petrochemical product. The plastics are non-biodegradable and non-recyclable and they pollute the environment through landfills.

According to a study, styrofoam cups leach polystyrene chemicals in hot drinks and water, therefore, putting our health at risk.

Styrofoam is among the number one materials that release ozone gas in the atmosphere, therefore, contributing to respiratory illnesses and also global warming.

Industries producing styrofoam and polystyrene plastics contribute very largely to global warming by releasing greenhouse gases such as chlorofluorocarbons.

Styrofoam also releases chemicals like styrene into the water bodies through leaching. Styrene has been associated with cancer for some time now and therefore improper disposal of styrofoam can be harmful to people’s health.

Conclusion.

The article has answered the question, ” is foam biodegradable?”.

It has also covered other areas such as:

  • Properties of polystyrene.
  • Uses of polystyrene.
  • Advantages and disadvantages of using styrofoam.
  • Comparison between expanded polystyrene and extruded polystyrene.
  • Eco-friendliness of styrofoam.
  • The biodegradation process.

For any questions or comments please use the comment section below.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): is foam biodegradable?

Is foam better than plastic?

No, the opposite is true. Styrofoam is a more potent environmental polluter than plastics. This is because plastics can be recycled but styrofoam can not be recycled and therefore fill the landfills. 

Is there environmentally friendly foam?

Yes, Green cell form is a type of foam derived from products of USA-grown corn.

The foam is easily degraded by microorganisms since it is formed from plant materials and therefore does not pollute the environment.

How long does Styrofoam take to decompose?

Styrofoam is categorized as non-biodegradable. It is estimated that it takes around 500-1000 years for styrofoam to break down.

Is foam packaging compostable?

No, foam is made from polystyrene plastic which is non-biodegradable and therefore can not undergo decomposition.

Citations.

Boundy, Ray H.; Amos, J. Lawrence (1991). A History of the Dow Chemical Physics Lab. New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc. pp. 117–128. ISBN 0-8247-8097-3.

Kwon BG, Saido K, Koizumi K, Sato H, Ogawa N, Chung SY, Kusui T, Kodera Y, Kogure K, et al. (May 2014). “Regional distribution of styrene analogs generated from polystyrene degradation along the coastlines of the North-East Pacific Ocean and Hawaii”. Environmental Pollution. 188: 45–9. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2014.01.019

Muller R (2005). “Biodegradability of Polymers: Regulations and Methods for Testing” (PDF). In Steinbüchel A (ed.). Biopolymers. Wiley-VCH. doi:10.1002/3527600035.bpola0

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