Is Recycling of Polystyrene (PS) Plastics Possible?

What is Polystyrene?

Polystyrene foam is also known by the trade name, Styrofoam.  It is used for food and goods packaging and in construction. It is a rigid foam material which has the advantage of being strong and at the same time lightweight. It can be shaped into solid blocks, or made into smaller pieces of foam, sometimes referred to as “popcorn”. In some countries, its use has  been banned for a number of reasons.

It  relatively inexpensive to manufacture, and has become very popular for certain commercial uses. Its official chemical name (ID) is (poly(1-phenylethene-1,2-diyl)), or PS for short.  It has a reasonably high melting temperature of 464 degrees F  (240 degrees C). It has very good insulating properties, low density (weight/volume) and hence it is used extensively  for hot beverages, packaging, and  in even in construction as insulation.

How is Polystyrene (PS) Manufactured?

PS is a petroleum-based product, and is manufactured out of oil derivatives, such as plastics. It is easily formed into specific shapes, blocks, or pellets and many other shapes. It is often  fabricated into coffee, beverage drinking cups, food containers, as well as packaging and construction materials. Even some surfboards are found to contain this versatile material!

How much Polystyrene Waste is Recycled each Year?

Polystyrene is a very durable product, and unfortunately very long lasting, which affects our ability to dispose of it properly after use.  In some forms, polystyrene is expected to last for over 500 years before decomposition!  It is much more difficult to recycle this particular product, as opposed to other plastic materials. For recycling purposes, plastics are numbered, typically on the bottom or other areas of the plastic and show up as a number inside a  small identifying triangle. These numbers range from one to seven. Polystyrene, or Styrofoam (trade name) products are marked with the numeral six (6).  Unfortunately,  significant number of municipal and private recycling operations DO NOT accept plastics with the “6” code.  This lack of interest may be because it seems that PS plastic petroleum products are much more difficult and  expensive to recycle and recover.

What are Potential Medical Problems associated with Polystyrene Products?

The United States EPA, (Environmental Protection Agency) has named polystyrene (PS) as a potential carcinogen. Production workers have been alerted by the EPA ,  that prolonged exposure to PS products in a manufacturing setting, may possibly cause problems with respiration, and may have negative effects on the human central nervous system.

What are the Problems with Disposal of Polystyrene Products?

It is somewhat difficult to obtain exact statistics,  but it seems that the type of polystyrene product recycling we are discussing has been reported in some surveys.  One such survey in 2015,  reported that over 600 million pounds of post consumer plastic products were identified and were recycled in the USA and Canada. Unfortunately, only about eight (8) million pounds of PS plastics were recycled among this  entire recycled waste stream. This equates to only about (1.33 percent)  of PS products in these particular  waste streams being actually recycled. Unfortunately these statistics seem to reveal the difficulty, cost,  and complexity of recovering PS (polystyrene) products.

How can we Mitigate the Problems with PS Products in our Environment?

The use of one form of PS products, namely  polystyrene cups  is very extensive in the USA, with a reported 500 Billion cups being disposed of  in a single year. Estimating that the average population of the USA is about  325 million people (2017) , this usage would amount to over 1540 cups of PS polystyrene cups being disposed of per person, per year. This quantity of cups seems very high, but even if it were  a fifth of that, i.e. ( 308  cups per individual per year), this volume is bound to  present a significant challenge  for landfill disposal and recycling of these (PS) products.

Realizing the difficulty of providing for the adequate and effective recycling of polystyrene, and the 500 year decomposition  time of these PS materials, the only  viable strategies may be to Limit the Sale, Use,  and Production, of PS types of containers and materials!

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