Saturday, 20 July 2024

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Greener Styrofoam

From insulated coolers and cups to packing materials Styrofoam is a very popular packaging material. In recent years companies have moved forward in packaging design and their impact on Earth's environment. The green push in recent years has pushed these companies to ramp up efforts to use cleaner products and even reevaluate standard packaging processes to create lower impact products and maintain favor in the public eye. But just how bad is the old packaging and does the lack of biodegradability equate automatically to negative environmental impact? To answer this question the ecological and economical aspects must be considered. Also, the changes in this packing material is important when determining how the want of cleaner resources impacts the advancement of a product.

Originally invented by Dow 50 Years ago Styrofoam was made as a disposable product. This was done in the early 1900s, by extruding polystyrene to create a formation that is more resistant to environmental factors such as moisture. Also, a unique quality at the time was the buoyancy of the material. Now the materials used can vary from household insulation to packaging for food. An online article about the creation of Styrofoam says, “These common disposable items are typically white in color and are made of expanded polystyrene beads. They do not provide the insulating value, compressive strength or moisture resistance properties of STYROFOAM products. In order to protect the Dow trademarked name “STYROFOAM”, such other material should be referred to by the generic term ‘foam.’’’ From this we can already see that there have been several forms of Styrofoam and can see that the possibility of a new cleaner material is a very real and needed innovation in a market that is making leaps in the way of sustainability.

Looking at the figure below we see how the market value of this foam has shown an increase, and the trend shows that it will continue to increase over the next five years. Also shown is the fact that North America includes over thirty-three percent of the market consumption of polyurethane foam. This coincides with the idea that America is the largest consumer-based country and therefore has the largest ability to drive the change in how packaging is done. In the recent past the green revolution began to pick up steam in both America and Europe, two of the largest sections on the market share chart.;_ylu=c2VjA2ZwLWF0dHJpYgRzbGsDcnVybA--/RV=2/RE=1651465761/RO=11/

The development of packaging has advanced in recent years giving several alternatives or variations of the styrofoam product. The driving forces behind these changes can fall under both economic and ecological agendas. With the new innovations companies that are looking at implementing these projects must take those ideas into consideration as well as whether the new products are able to stand up to the existing products' performance. As more new products are made cheaper, cleaner, and more effective the market will start to shift to the newer products.

Ecological Impact

One article shows findings of work in the Southern Baltics and the negative impacts that Styrofoam can have in the environment.

“Unlike PE, PVC, or PP wastes, Styrofoam waste already occurs in the fine-grained form on land. As a result, it potentially sorbs pollutants not only from water, but also from air and soil. Moreover, it is characterized by a large surface to weight proportion and a porous structure, which further increases its sorption capacity. It is probable that Styrofoam debris is introduced into the alimentary systems of many different water and land organisms. The possibility of Styrofoam dust affecting the respiratory system cannot be ruled out either. However, as far as the authors of this study are aware, the interactions between Styrofoam debris and other pollutants are not known.”

This article is looking specifically at the issue tied to the fact that Styrofoam has larger ability and tendency to absorb other pollutants and shares there are several unknown factors to this material but through research they found that Styrofoam does pose a threat of bioaccumulation of other pollutants in ecosystems, as well as noting that the debris served as an area for algae and other organisms to grow on. Bioaccumulation is the progressive buildup of pollutants getting more concentrated the further up in the food chain, which is why we look at this because the pollutant levels when we consume will tend to be higher.

When looking at the ecological impact generally the idea of biodegradation comes to mind. Below is a chart showing some common pollutants and the time it requires to break down in water. Although Styrofoam is not the longest we still see that for a single cup it may take 50 years to break down. This may not seem as bad but the volume each year of Styrofoam must also be considered before judgment can be made. According to GDA Greendining Alliance annually 25 billion Styrofoam cups are thrown away in the US. Overall Americans throw away roughly 2.5 million tons of Styrofoam a year in landfills where it breaks down into smaller pieces and gets into the ecosystem. That means by 2072 when the cups from this year are considered degraded approximately 125 million tons of waste will be added. This is also assuming that the conditions of the landfills are suited for degrading the Styrofoam waste.

To further the issue, it is important to consider where this waste is going, in the figure below we see the distribution of the disposal methods in the United States. Even with the push to recycle we see only 25.8% of waste is recycled, in other countries even lower portions are recycled and here is where the argument between making biodegradable and recyclable alternatives comes into light. There is a debate and with current statistics we see why there is an advocacy for the biodegradable products, because there are not large amounts of recycling compared to sending to landfills. Economics is a large driving force for companies and until recently there has been no interest in shifting to more expensive recyclable products; however, as the percentage of recycling efforts is rising companies are seeing a possible way to increase revenue switching to recyclable products, because it allows them to reduce cost of raw material. With the lower cost they can invest in research or innovations in other parts of the material process to make green and cheaper issues. With this possible increase we can also see the chance that independent companies will take personal interest in advocacy for recycling efforts. This would result in an increase in the level of recycling. This all considered as the companies do better there is chain reaction that ends up benefiting not only the economy but also the environment. With these factors the greener Styrofoam alternatives continue to look more appealing to companies making these materials.;_ylu=c2VjA2ZwLWF0dHJpYgRzbGsDcnVybA--/RV=2/RE=1651212595/RO=11/

With the current cultural climate surrounding environmental activism in America, the incentive for companies to go green has increased. This trend is and has spread over the world approaching this issue through decreasing waste and increasing other conservation efforts. While plastic appears to be a major portion of waste the advancements of the subcategory of Styrofoam has not been a topic of serious public interest, but appears to be on the side; however companies have still worked to improve the Styrofoam whether it be recyclability or biodegradability.


Throughout recent years we have seen several alternatives to Styrofoam rise in popularity, a prime example is drink cups in fast food restaurants like McDonald’s. Where the old go to cup was the well-insulated Styrofoam we now see a mix of plastic, which is not necessarily more beneficial, and the PLA lined paper cups. In this PLA stands for polylactic acid which is derived from corn starch. This liner protects the paper from being broken down or weakened by the liquids in the cup. The drawback of using this alternative is the material has a poor heat transfer which means that if hot liquids are in the cup it transfers to the holder's hand. As a benefit these cups are biodegradable at the end of their life.

Another alternative is bagasse and molded fibers. These alternatives are often used for other materials like disposable plates, containers and bowls. Where their Styrofoam counterpart is not recommended for microwaves this product material is microwave safe. A disadvantage to this particular alternative is the control the containers have with steam is not very effective and can thus result in soggy food. The materials used to create this product consist of recycled fibers from products like newspaper or cardboard boxes usually having a tan or beige color. The EPBSupply talks about, “Mineral-filled polypropylene also referred to as MFPP, products contain an average of 50% less plastic than standard polypropylene reducing the amount of total plastic required to manufacturer each cup or container.” While this is a more sustainable path and shows a step in the right direction this specific product is still not able to be recycled and therefore it is not the greenest option. The end life of this product is ultimately incineration or a trip to the landfill; however, this is the least expensive alternative to Styrofoam. Building off of MFPP there is an opportunity to continue to decrease the amount of plastic required and make the packaging material greener.

The cheapest of these alternatives is aluminum packaging. This product is not microwave safe, but can be used in an oven as well as be recycled after being rinsed off. Of the alternatives seen this one poses more potential risk to the consumer, like PLA lined paper there is a risk that the consumer burns themselves through this product. Also, the aluminum products have sharper edges and serve as a potential injury risk. Like with other recycled products the more of that resource is recycled the cheaper the company can make the product, because they do not have to invest as much in the raw materials which can greatly increase the cost of a product. If the price of production goes down the likelihood of the end product being cheaper is higher due to a company’s desire to make profit but keep prices so the product sells.

Poly Coated cardboard is another alternative that is utilized for both hot and cold containers that have both heat tolerance and insulative properties. This alternative can be made up of either corrugated or flat cardboard coated. The price point of this is more expensive than aluminum but cheaper than using the bagasse and molded fibers and the PLA lined paper containers. This is closest to the PLA line but in the end, this is also non-recyclable and cannot be composted at the end of its life. Some examples of this material are the fast-food drink holders and cardboard coffee cups that are used everywhere from disposable cups at home, and hotels to restaurants.

Final Thoughts

Through this the negative impact of Styrofoam on the environment is shown. As consumerism grows society has to look to adjust to what is seen as the status quo and look forward to the future that could be. With increased consumption of packaged goods, the need for recyclable and compostable is becoming more important than ever, because the increase of waste is exceeding the amount of waste that landfills can contain, and pollution will increase rapidly as we run out of places to throw these unsustainable products.

Looking at some of the numerous alternative opportunities as replacement for Styrofoam. Looking at the majority of paper products with coatings, like PLA and poly-coated cardboard/paper packaging, they have lower numbers of plastic products needed but they are neither recyclable nor compostable. These products are already in widespread usage throughout the United States. The number of paper plates in contrast to Styrofoam has increased as now companies can make money off the switch and continue to look for cheaper and cleaner alternatives.

The bagasse and molded fibers are decomposable and for the customer they are even microwave safe. However, these products are not perfect because of their poor handling of steam that can ruin the food that the container is protecting. Mineral-filled polypropylene is still containing the Styrofoam product that is what society is moving away from but has decreased the amount of that particular product by up to fifty percent in some products. Like the coated paper produced, the mineral-filled polypropylene has an ultimate end life of the landfills or even incineration. The most inexpensive alternative is high temperature and recyclable but is not allowed to be used in the microwave.

Looking at these new alternatives there are pieces that can be faulted on. Whether they are not truly recyclable or compostable, there are pieces that can be improved. As companies continue to advance and innovate the ability for cheaper, cleaner, and effective packaging materials. As packaging has become more and more important for our society these advancements' importance has never been greater. Sustainability of these packages continue to increase in importance as consumption increases and the limited amount of space for disposal. As society continues to grow and advance so do the technologies that allow us to live sustainably on the individual and global scale.


“The Case for Environmentally Friendly Plastic - Torus Pak: Redefining Dining.” Torus Pak | Redefining Dining, 3 Apr. 2019,

DataM Intelligence, “Polyurethane Foam Market Size & Growth: Forecast 2022, 2029.” DataMIntelligence,

“How to Prevent Pollution: 25 Ways to Reduce Pollution.”,

Sharma, Shivika, and Subhankar Chatterjee. “Microplastic Pollution, a Threat to Marine Ecosystem and Human Health: A Short Review - Environmental Science and Pollution Research.” SpringerLink, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 16 Aug. 2017,

Tanguay, Michael. “Top 6 Styrofoam Alternatives (Advantages & Disadvantages).” EBP Supply, 10 July 2019,

“The ‘Real Cost’ of Styrofoam Shows More than Meets the Eye.” Green Dining Alliance, Green Dining Alliance, 10 Oct. 2017,,Styrofoam%20goes%20to%20the%20landfill%20every%20single%20year.

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