23 October 2009

Styrofoam And An Eco-Friendly Alternative

Dear Reader,

How many of you out there knew that styrofoam is a petroleum-derived product? I'll be honest: I didn't. But most of us who use consumer electronics would know what styrofoam is: it's that spongy, white, substance, formed into small globes, and further compressed together to form protective layers in packaging consumer electronics. It certainly helps reduce the damage to the electronic item in question, for example whenever there is a bump or the box falls on the ground.

What is Styrofoam?

From Wikipedia, we learn that styrofoam can refer to two things:
  1. Extruded polystyrene foam. In fact, the word "Styrofoam" was first used as a trademark by the Dow Chemical Company for extruded foamed polystyrene, used in thermal insulation and craft applications. Foamed polystyrene is moisture resistant and is used in building materials.
  2. Expanded polystyrene foam, in which case "styrofoam" has become a generic word to refer to moulded packaging material made of polystyrene beads. Apparently "EPS", as it is known, has been used to insulate concrete structures.
Discerning readers can read about the history of polystyrene here.

Some of the Issues

Some issues surrounding polystyrene seem to be:
  1. non-biodegradability
  2. recyclability
  3. disposal
  4. ingestion by animals and/or sea creatures
  5. land and/or sea debris/pollution
  6. depletion of ozone layer caused by production process
  7. health risks (carcinogens, etc)
  8. fire hazard / flammable
  9. dissolved by solvents
The look of Styrofoam

For good measure, those who aren't certain what polystyrene looks like can take a look at these links:
  1. Wikipedia - a picture of expanded polystyrene packaging
  2. Wikipedia - polystyrene packaging
  3. TreeHugger - polystyrene packgaging for food.
  4. Packaging Probe - Nissin noodles polystyrene cup packaging
  5. Zero Garbage Challenge - a picture of a rubbish dump, which (among others) includes polystyrene packaging
  6. Earth911 - "packing peanuts", or uniform, small pieces of EPS used in packaging (you can also google for "loose fill packaging")
  7. ThosmasNet news - polystyrene cups and bowls.
  8. Greenwich Village School Parent-Teacher Association - polystyrene food trays.
  9. Seven Shore News blog - pictures of a styrofoam cup and a paper cup after 50 days in an aquarium.
  10. Squidoo - "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch", described as "an area in the north Pacific Ocean, estimated to be roughly twice the size of Texas, filled with all kinds of plastic debris".
Styro in the news

Starting 1st June 2007, San Francisco required "food vendors who sell prepared food to use compostable or recyclable to-go containers". (Source: TreeHugger, April 13th, 2007. San Francisco Bans Styrofoam for To-Go Containers) In March 2006, LiveScience reported that the United States produces more than 3 tonnes of polystyrene waste annually. (Source: LiveScience, March 7th, 2006. Immortal Polystyrene Foam Meets Its Enemy) The same article also stated that pseudomonas putida, a soil bacteria, had been discovered, which could be used to recycle polystyrene into a biodegradeable plastic known as PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates).

In August 2008, Ecology Global Network, a news service of Ecology Radio and Ecology TV, reported that:
  • Ten per cent (10%) of the world's plastic waste ends up in the Pacific Ocean.
  • Over 1,000,000 seabirds and over 100,000 sea mammals die every year from eating plastic waste.
  • Plastic lighters, plastic bottle caps and plastic bags have been found in the stomachs of dead sea birds. 
  • Researchers estimate there are 6 kgs of plastic waste for every 1 kg of plankton in the Pacific Ocean.
  • Plastic waste is a "toxic sponge" and attracts "persistent organic pollutants (POPs), hydrocarbons and DDT".
  • Dutch researchers estimate that 70% of plastic waste ends up on the ocean floor.
  • Dutch researchers estimate about 600 tonnes of plastic waste presently on the ocean floor.
(Source: Ecology Global Network, August 14, 2008. Pacific Ocean Plastic Waste Dump. Found via ZDNet blog GreenTech Pastures, March 3rd 2009. Green crusaders to cross Pacific in a plastic bottle)

Plastic (and Styrofoam) is Biodegradable and TOXIC!

In August 2009, National Geographic reported that a recent discovery showed that plastics break down quickly in the ocean, posing health risks to oceanic life and the beings that eat them (essentially, mankind). It was found that polystyrene disintegrates at 30 degrees Celcius (86 degrees Farenheit) in the sea. (Source: National Geographic, August 20th 2009. Plastic Breaks Down In Ocean, After All -- And Fast, by Carolyn Barry. Found via ZDNet blog GreenTech Pastures, August 27th 2009. Plastic floats forever? Maybe not. By Harry Fuller.) It was also noted in the said report, that:
  1. This breakdown of plastic would likely be taking place in tropical and subtropical regions
  2. Sea water was found to contain poly trimer (by-product of styrofoam that is a suspected carcinogen) and Bisphenol A (BPA - used in hard plastics and suspected to affect reproductive systems)
  3. Broken down styrofoam sinks, and is likely to pollute (or have polluted) the entire column of ocean water (and not just the surface).
  4. Plastics are likely to absorb chemicals from the surface before sinking beneath the surface, and are therefore "toxic sponges". 
This is an urgent and important finding, and governments around the world should take notice. In the long run, will dumping plastic waste (and styrofoam) into the oceans pollute the seas, or poison the seas? It seems that it's a little bit of both.

3R - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Here are some ideas that you can use to reduce, reuse and recycle styrofoam / polystyrene.
  1. Make robots - Kevin Kelly, a self-styled "geek dad", made a Styrobot out of the styrofoam packaging that had accumulated at his house for five years. (It looks like Optimus Prime from Transformers). He was inspired by Michael Salter, an associate professor of digital arts at University of Oregon.
  2. Create tote bags - Alabama-based company EarthChich has found a way to turn plastic into fibers, which can in turn be woven into tote bags, among the many other possibilities. (Source: Life Goggles, April 9th 2008. Earthchich Reusable Tote Eco Product Review)
  3. Create props for hotels and/or malls - In 1999, Cairo weekly Al-Ahram reported that Hilton Fayrouz Resort and Hilton Sharm Dreams would hold a "Lawrence of Arabia" themed event for guests on New Years' Eve. The decor was styled after the movie and included "old burnt-out jeeps, trees and British and Arab troops all made of Styrofoam". (Source: Al-Ahram, Issue No. 457. Nov 25th to Dec 1st 1999 edition. Where to go on 31 December, by Rehab Saad.)
  4. Disguise yourself - In 2003, Cairo weekly Al-Ahram reported that Saddam Hussein was found "hiding in a Styrofoam-covered underground hide-out." (Source: Al-Ahram, Issue No. 669. Dec 18th to 24th 2003 edition. Remains of history, by Salah Hameid.)
  5. Melt your styrofoam - Consider purchasing the "StyroMelt", which its manufacturers claim "melts polystyrene (styrofoam) to form a dense block of material that is reduced in volume by over 95% of the original material. So a 2 cubic metre load of polystyrene comes out of the machine as a small block approximately 90cm x 25cm x 5cm. The block can be stored then sold to recycling companies who then turn it into fuels such as diesel or new products such as garden furniture." Sounds eco-friendly.
  6. Make artistic packaging ala Apple - See this post by ZDNet blogger Jason D. O'Grady. (Ref: ZDNet: The Apple Core, February 20th 2006. Exclusive: MacBook Pro unboxing pics.)
Manufacturers Get In 

What can businesses, corporations and manufacturers do about styrofoam pollution? The business sector and governments alike must recognise that most, if not all, styrofoam comes from the production of building materials, packaging materials, cup/plate/tray replacements, and other such products and by-products of the manufacturing industry. In fact, most articles produced using styrofoam are complementary to some other product, such as: food, consumer electronics, building materials, construction, et cetera. which in fact come from a variety of industries.

Consider, for example:
  1. Sony Corporation is using limonene (an extract of the orange fruit) to treat its foam packaging. Limonene, when sprayed on styrofoam, will reduce the styrofoam into a "a viscous gel that can be used as super glue". (Source: Squidoo, Styrofoam Recycling.) 
  2. The Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers is encouraging the recycling of EPS, and will accept EPS packaging from members of the public for recycling. (Source: Squidoo, ibid.
  3. Starbucks, Seattle's Best Coffee and a number of other "enlightened" cafes have taken to giving discounts to customers who bring their own coffee mug. (Source: Squidoo, ibid.)
  4. Styrofoam reacts with acetone (a kind of solvent), disintegrating the styrofoam to its "strands of styrene molecules". It does not disappear entirely, but becomes reduced in volume. (Source: Steven Spangler Science, Vanishing Styrofoam. Accessed October 22nd 2009.) From another science enthusiast website: "When styrofoam is placed in acetone, the long polymer strands are dissolved, releasing the trapped air and causing the structure to disintegrate. However, the insoluble crosslinked parts of the polymer keep the polystyrene from dissolving entirely, in much the same way as buoys on nets keep the entire net from sinking to the bottom of a lake. Once the acetone evaporates, you are left with a hard crosslinked polystyrene residue." (Source: Cardhouse.com, Please Pass The Science - Styrofoam by Scott Berk. Accessed: October 22nd 2009)
  5. The Solid Waste Services of Austin, Texas suggests donating Styrofoam peanuts to Mail Boxes Etc., or a similar store, for reuse. (Source: Austin City Connection, Solid Waste Services: How Do I Dispose Of Directory -- "S". Accessed: October 22nd, 2009)
  6. Recycling Expanded Polystyrene Australia (REPSA), a division of the Plastics and Chemicals Industries Association (PACIA) states on its home page: "In 2006/2007 approximately 33,000 tonnes of EPS was manufactured in Australia. During the same period over 800 tonnes of EPS was collected and recycled at EPS Collection Centres across Australia."
  7. A European Union directive requires member states to recycle at least 55 per cent of their packaging waste. (Source: Montreal Gazette. Now and forever: The Styrofoam dilemma. By Catherine Solyom. Found via Clean Seas Coalition, March 6th 2009. The Styrofoam Dilemma.)
  8. Polystyrene has instead been banned in about 30 municipalities in California. (Source: Montreal Gazette, ibid.)
  9. In October 2008, Walmart Canada, started a program to have Styrofoam packaging at eight stores in Ontario collected and recycled by Grace Canada (described on its website as a "premier global specialty chemicals and materials company"), which turns it into construction materials. (Source: Montreal Gazette, ibid.)
  10. Following the lead of the European Union directive, the Ministry of Environment of the Republic of Korea has implemented the Extended Producer Responsibility System (EPRS). The EPR was first mooted in Germany and adopted in many countries, e.g. Sweden, Switzerland, Netherlands, Taiwan, etc. A description of the Korean EPR is available on the website: "In Korea, under this system, the government sets the amount of waste that must be recycled by each producer, after taking into account the collection of recyclable resources and other recycling conditions, where the producers must reach their recycling target. The total mandatory recycling amount of a recyclable item is multiplied by the ratio of a business in the total production of the item to produce the mandatory recycling amounts by business. The manufacturers will collect and recycle their products after consumers use and discard them, or pay for the full cost needed for recycling. The original aim is not only to promote recycling, but also force manufacturers to improve product design so that waste generation is minimized and recycling becomes easier." (Source: Ministry of Environment of the Republic of Korea, The Extended Producer Responsibility System (EPRS). Accessed October 22nd, 2009)
Eco-Friendly Alternative To Styrofoam?

In May 2009, Popular Science magazine awarded their PopSci Invention Awards. One of the recipients of the award were Eben Bayer and Gavin MacIntyre, who have invented an eco-friendly alternative to styrofoam. Their invention, dubbed "Greensulate", is an insulation material made of mycelia, the roots of mushrooms. Here is an extract from the Popular Science article:
In the lab, the inventors grow mycelia, the vegetative roots of mushrooms that resemble bundles of white fiber. But instead of soil, the roots grow in a bed of agricultural by-products like buckwheat husks, and those intertwining fibers give the material structural support. The mixture is placed inside a panel (or whatever shape is required) and, after 10 to 14 days, the mycelia develop a dense network — just one cubic inch of the white-and-brown-specked "Greensulate" insulation contains eight miles of interconnected mycelia strands. The panels are dried in an oven at between 100° and 150°F to stop mycelia growth, and at the end of two weeks, they're ready for your walls.
(Source: Popular Science, May 26th 2009. Invention Awards: Eco-Friendly Insulation Made From Mushrooms. Found via Good magazine, October 22nd 2009. Pop!Tech 09: Way Better Than Styrofoam.)

The founders have formed a company, Ecovative Design, to market the product. ("Ecovative" is a play on the word "evocative".) The benefits of "Greensulate" as Ecovative Design claims on its website are:
  1. All-natural product.
  2. Cuts heating/cooling bills.
  3. Strong and rigid.
  4. Class 1 fire rating.
  5. Safe to touch.
  6. No spores or allergy concerns.
  7. Withstands mold growth.
  8. Does not absorb water.
  9. Does not transmit vapour.
  10. Energy efficient.
  11. Free from chemicals and VOC (volatile organic compound).
  12. Manufacturing uses less energy compared to styrofoam.
Ecovative Design also markets the same product for product packaging under the trade name "EcoCradle". Some of the benefits of "EcoCradle" as found on the official website:
  1. Can be recycled as mulch in the garden.
  2. Can be composted (anaerobically compostable).
  3. Will decompose in a landfill in a short time.
  4. Can be reused for packaging or insulation.
  5. Grown using agricultural byproducts.
  6. Production and price not linked to petroleum.
  7. Is a complete replacement for styrofoam.
  8. Energy efficient production.
  9. Comparably low heat / pressure / petroleum usage in production.
Malaysia Compared

Here is a list of some things the Malaysian government has done in regard to styrofoam:
  1. The Department of Environment, set up under the Ministry of  Natural Resources and Environment, has come up with a booklet called Buku Amalam Mesra Alam, which advises you on environmentally friendly habits. The book is bi-lingual, in English and Malay. Download it in PDF here.
  2. The Housing and Local Government Ministry (KPKT) in collaboration with Local Agenda 21 (LA 21 - Launched by the United Nations at the seminal Rio Earth Summit in 1992) encourages Malaysians to use their own tiffin carriers to avoid using styrofoam packaging. (Food hawkers seem to use styrofoam packaging nowadays, so perhaps this campaign has been forgotten.) (Ref: KPKT, Every bit helps. Accessed October 22nd 2009)
  3. Between 18th to 20th April 2008, the Department of Marine Park Malaysia in collaboration with Coral Malaysia, ReefCheck, Malaysian Nature Society and Tioman Dive Center launched a "Say NO To Styrofoam" Campaign at Pulau Tioman. (Source: Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Malaysian Parks Newsletter Issue #1/08, March 2008 edition. Accessed: October 22nd, 2009)(Also refer to: Department of Marine Park Malaysia, Calendar Activities.)
  4. Dr Abu Bakar Abdul Majeed, a Fellow Kanan from IKIM (Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia), writing in The New Straits Times in 2001, cited findings of the UN-sponsored Global Environmental Outlook 2008 and the alarming rate of the CFC's polluting the atmosphere. He said that Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, signed around 1990 by many countries, had not been effective. He also cited the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which had not been implemented by many countries. (Source: IKIM, April 21st 2001. Act now to save the environment. By Dr Abu Bakar Abdul Majeed.)
  5. The Department of Environment, in collaboration with Environmental Protection Society Malaysia (EPSM) launched the SLiM Challenge 2007. (SLiM stood for "Sustainable Living in Malaysia".) One of the challenges was "Say NO to styrofoam boxes and plastic bags". (Source: Department of Environment, Malaysia. IMPAK : Quarterly DOE Update on Environment, Development & Sustainability. Issue 3 / 2007.)
  6. Earlier this year, Masidi Manjun, Sabah State Environment Minister was reported to have said in his Earth Day speech, that styrofoam packaging for take-away food is 'not only harm human health but also the health of the earth since it is "degradable only 500 years later."' He exhorted the audience to look for "new methods of doing things because actually there are alternatives". (Source: Sabah State Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment, April 22nd 2009. Masidi hopes SM Kolombong will be model on organic concept.)
  7. On 8th January 2008, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) banned the use of styrofoam food packaging. 32 cafeteria operators were instructed to stop using styrofoam food packaging. (Ref: The Star Online, January 8th 2008. USM bans use of "white coffins".) On 22nd January 2008 USM was reported to have extended the campaign to its two branch campuses. (Ref: The Star Online, January 22nd 2008. USM extends polystyrene ban.) The campaign website can be accessed here. Click here for a description of other environmental campaigns launched by USM students in 2008. Tupperware was one of the sponsors of the "White Coffin" campaign.
  8. The Department of Veterinary Services, Perak uses styrofoam boxes to store turtle eggs within two hours of being laid. They are then taken for incubation. (Source: Star Metro, May 19, 2005. Turtle conservation bid bearing fruit, by Sharon Ling.)
  9. A March 2006 product study of plastics in Argentina, found at the MATRADE website, identifies "PS crystal is a polymer of monomer styrene, derived from petroleum" as a component used to manufacture styrofoam. (Source, accessed October 22nd 2009)
  10. The Sibu local government's website shows an article from the Borneo Post that states: "Styrofoam takes 2,000 years to decompose." (Source: Sibu, The Official Website. March 15th 2008, Fight global warming through recycling.)
  11. The Freshwater Fisheries Research Centre, in its 1995 Annual Report, stated that it was using styrofoam floats in its study "for the introduction of cage culture as a aquaculture industry in Lake Kenyir." (Source: FFRC, Annual Report 1995. Accessed: October 22nd 2009
  12. The Department of Agriculture, Malaysia as part of Scheme Organic Malaysia has set certain "Standards & Certification Requirements For The Production of Plant-Based Organic Food Products". In relation to the packaging of food products, the DOA has prohibited the use of styrofoam unless no alternatives are available. (Source: DOA, Scheme Organic Malaysia. Accessed: October 22nd 2009)
  13. In May 2008, Kementerian Perdagangan Dalam Negeri Dan Hal Ehwal Pengguna (KPDNHEP) in its monthly newsletter "Pengguna" advised its readers to avoid using styrofoam as it contains benzene, which is a carcinogen. (Source: KPDNHEP, Pengguna Newsletter. May 2008 edition.)
  14. Info Ternak, apparently approved by the Perak state government, has an executive briefing for an ostrich breeding program, known as "Projek Ternakan Ostrich Pedaging". Styrofoam is used, and is charged RM0.12 sen per piece. 2,910 pieces are used, costing RM349.20 in total. (Source: Info Ternak, Projek Ternakan Ostrich Pedaging (PDF). Accessed: October 22nd, 2009.)
  15. The Manjung District Department of Agriculture has guidelines for the farming of the pitaya fruit (a.k.a. "dragonfruit"). In its explanation, it advises would-be farmers that pitaya fruits which will sent to faraway destinations need to be wrapped in styrofoam. (Source: Laman Pejabat Pertanian Daerah Manjung, Panduan menanam buah pitaya /dragon fruit. Accessed October 22nd, 2009.)


Linus said...


Very Informative, keep it up! Do you know of any EPS recyclers in Malaysia? Thanks

Kevin Koo said...

Hi there,

My sincere apologies as I do not know of any EPS recyclers in Malaysia. I'll try to find out.

P-Walms said...

Great information, i was a great help. Thanks!

Unknown said...

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MP: 86 15000157422