Recycling Polystyrene Plastics – A Non Sequitur?

Is Recycling  Polystyrene Possible?

As with most useful materials, is there a possibility of Recycling Polystyrene?  Polystyrene foam is also known by the trade name, Styrofoam.  It is used for food and goods packaging as well as construction. Being a  rigid foam material, it  has the advantage of strength;at the same time is 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.

Technical Facts about Polystyrene

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). This makes it an excellent choice for hot beverage cups,  general packaging of goods, and insulation in construction.

How is Polystyrene (PS) Manufactured?

Non Recycled Polystyrene Cups can Last an Eternity!

Non Recycled Polystyrene Cups can Last an Eternity!

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!


Are We Making any Progress Recycling Polystyrene in any Meaningful Volume?

Polystyrene is a very durable product, and unfortunately very long lasting as well. This  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 it compared to other plastic materials. For recycling purposes, plastics are usually numbered. The code number appears on the bottom of the item withing  a  small identifying triangle. Numbering ranges from one to seven. Polystyrene, or Styrofoam (trade name) products are marked with the numeral six (6).  Unfortunately,  a significant number of municipal and private recycling operations DO NOT accept plastics with the “6” code.  This lack of interest may occur 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 Producing Polystyrene Products?

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

Statistics Concerning  Disposal and Recycling Polystyrene

It is somewhat difficult to obtain exact statistics,  but  the subject of  recycling Polystyrene  has been reported in some surveys.  One such survey, in 2015,  reported that over 600 million pounds of post consumer plastic products were identified as recycled in North America ( USA and Canada). Unfortunately, only about eight (8) million pounds of PS plastics were recycled among this  entire recycled waste stream. This is equal to only about (1.33 percent)  of PS products in these particular  waste streams. These these statistics seem to suggest the difficulty, cost, and complexity incurred when attempting to recycle  polystyrene products.

Does Any Hope Exist for the Green Recycling of PS Products?

The use of  polystyrene cups  is very extensive in the USA, with a reported 500 Billion (500 thousand million) cups being disposed of  in a single year!  Estimating that the average population of the USA in 2017 is  325 million people, usage would amount to over 1540 f PS polystyrene cups being disposed of per person, per year. This estimate of  cups seems a bit high, but assume if it were even 40%  of that, i.e. ( 616  cups per individual per year), this volume would present a significant challenge  for landfill disposal of (PS) products.

Maybe the Only Solution to PS Pollution is Abstinence

Realizing the current difficulty of providing for the adequate and effective means of Recycling Polystyrene,  and the 500 year decomposition  time of these PS materials, the only  viable strategies available may be the following:Limit  the Sale, Use,  and Production, of  all types of PS  containers and materials!

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