No doubt, most of us have heard of Styrofoam and most probably have used it on various occasions as well. For many years, we have been using foam products in our go-to picnic disposable cups and plates, among its many other uses.
Since many of us use these in our day-to-day lives, you may be wondering, is Styrofoam plastic? Let us find out the answers!
In short, Styrofoam is plastic. But more specifically, it is the trademark of a popular brand of building insulation. In a casual sense, the term refers to “expanded polystyrene”. When unexpanded, solid polystyrene is a rigid and clear plastic commonly used in modeling kits. To make Styrofoam, we have to blow liquid polystyrene into a foam before it hardens.
Now that you have a basic idea about whether Styrofoam is plastic or not, you may be curious to know a bit more about it.
In the rest of the article, we will take a look at what Styrofoam exactly is, what we make it from, and whether it is worse than plastic. Without further ado, let’s get right to it.
What Exactly Is Styrofoam?
The term “Styrofoam” is a trademarked name by Dow Chemical and refers to a chemical compound named “Extruded polystyrene foam”.
It is a petroleum-based plastic consisting of styrene monomers. We use this mostly for housing insulation. Ever since Styrofoam’s discovery back in 1941, it has become incredibly common in a huge variety of applications.
Styrofoam is quite lightweight as the product consists of 95% air. It has good insulation properties and is ideal to make products such as cups that keep beverages hot.
It is also great to make packing material that keeps products safe when shipping. All these attributes help to make this product quite heavily used in various industries.
What Is Styrofoam Made From?
We make Styrofoam from styrene, a petroleum product. To make a transparent mass of molten polystyrene, styrene gets refined through a complicated chemical process named polymerization.
If you just leave it to cool, the clear mass of polystyrene would harden into hard plastic. Usually, disposable dining utensils get manufactured from this sort of polystyrene.
Before the molten polystyrene gets cold, the agent HCFC (Hydrochlorofluorocarbon) 142b helps it to expand.
Under extreme pressure, the manufacturer dissolves the agent into the polystyrene. Then the molten polystyrene is forced or extruded through a tiny hole where it expands under reduced pressure to form foam boards.
After this, the boards can be cut into any dimension. As a result, the end product is referred to as extruded polystyrene foam, or Styrofoam when manufactured by Dow Chemical.
What are the Physical Properties of Styrofoam?
Nowadays, Styrofoam is one of the most popular forms of plastic in the world and various types of industries use it extensively.
Let’s take a look at all the physical properties of this widely-used material –
One of the most notable and key physical properties of Styrofoam is that it is thermoplastic.
This indicates that the material is solid at normal temperature, but when heated to a certain degree, it becomes liquid. When liquid, you can mold the Styrofoam into fine details.
This unique property of Styrofoam allows you to use the material in a huge range of applications and industries. Insulations, craft material, and packaging material are only some of the most common uses for this material today.
Styrofoam works extremely well as an insulator. Because of this unique characteristic, coolers, cups, plates, food containers, and various other products use this material.
This material has the capabilities to limit thermal transfer. As a result, regardless of the outside temperature, a structure insulated with this material maintains a normal temperature Inside.
Lightweight and Shock Absorber
One of the greatest advantages of Styrofoam is that this material is extremely lightweight. It also serves as a great shock absorber, since Styrofoam is nearly 90% air.
As a result, this material is ideal as a packaging material. The lightweight material is convenient for transportation as it efficiently absorbs trauma and safeguards the goods from any harm.
Styrofoam vs. Expanded Polystyrene – What Is the Difference?
Many of us are not well aware, but many products that we believe are made from Styrofoam are in reality made with polystyrene.
So when you are looking for expanded polystyrene items, you may have been unknowingly referring to them as Styrofoam. But in reality, these two materials are completely different.
Styrofoam is a trademarked brand name for XPS or closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam.
This foam, you may also know as “Blue Board,” is common in industries that make building insulation, water barriers, and thermal insulation.
The Dow Chemical Company owns and manufactures Styrofoam. This material consists of a petroleum-based product, styrene.
Through a chemical complex process polymerization, styrene gets refined into polystyrene and a hydrofluorocarbon agent is applied to it next.
The mixture then gets extruded and is allowed to expand under pressure. Finally, we get a foam board that is Styrofoam.
Expanded Polystyrene or EPS
On the other hand, the foam we commonly refer to as Styrofoam is Expanded Polystyrene foam or EPS.
It is the generic name for the white stiff foam in the industry. We make EPS from a transparent plastic named polystyrene that you may commonly find in food packaging and laboratory equipment.
We use EPS in most “foam” items, including cups at your workplace water cooler, coolers, box packing, wine shippers, molded end caps, and corners.
During its production, we need to add a large amount of steam and pressure to bond polystyrene beads together and form blocks of foam or shape molds. We also use this material for insulation and void fill in the construction industry.
Is Styrofoam Biodegradable Material?
Since Styrofoam consists of petrochemicals, it includes elements that don’t decompose very well. So it is easy to conclude that Styrofoam isn’t biodegradable at all.
You can call a certain material biodegradable only if living organisms could decompose it. Most of the time, only living creatures and goods that we make from them fall under this category.
Biodegradable materials include trees and paper, as well as dead animals and sewage. These substances don’t stay in the environment for long and prevent pollution.
Whereas even if Styrofoam™ does degrade naturally, it takes a long time. It can generally take between five hundred to a thousand years for Styrofoam to decompose naturally.
Is It Okay to Burn Styrofoam?
While it may be possible to burn Styrofoam, experts would advise you to not do so. When you burn Styrofoam, it leads to the release of many toxic and hazardous substances into the air.
As you may be already aware, Styrofoam consists of numerous chemicals that are hazardous themselves. When we burn these materials, chemicals begin to form and lead to emission along with heat.
Small amounts of Styrofoam, on the other hand, may not do much damage when you burn it.
To cause damage to Styrofoam in a harmful way to the environment, the fire or heat must burn in huge numbers or for a long time. Otherwise, there won’t be any toxic chemical emissions in huge amounts into the air.
Similarly, burning Styrofoam with garbage or in a bonfire will not create enough heat to allow dangerous chemicals to release.
However, the issue with this way of burning Styrofoam is that it may burn hotter than normal, causing environmental damage.
You can burn Styrofoam in a controlled environment to reduce damages. Burning it as a waste disposal method will require high temperatures.
If you do this process in a secure incinerator, the harmful substances might not escape into the environment. Not following these measures when you burn Styrofoam can cause massive damage to the environment.
Is Styrofoam Worse than Plastic?
Although Styrofoam is a form of plastic, it is not identical to plastic. Many people use plastic as a substitute for Styrofoam in a variety of situations.
For example – we use Styrofoam when making food containers or cups. Since we use these materials as substitutes for each other, it is difficult to say exactly which one is worse than the other.
The answer to which material one is worse largely depends on why you are comparing plastic and Styrofoam in the first place. In general, Styrofoam is much more harmful to the environment than plastic.
Even if both materials are on par when littering the earth, Styrofoam is worse for the environment.
Compared to plastic, Styrofoam is harder to recycle. So many people need to discard it in landfills. This material does not decompose quickly either. So it stays as trash for a long while.
On the other hand, you can recycle plastic products even though they do not decompose. Since you can recycle this material into different valuable goods, they do not stay as litter for long.
Unlike Styrofoam, plastic is cheaper to recycle and produce as well.
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In recent times, Styrofoam has become one of the most commonly used forms of plastic in the world because of its many benefits and uses. Because it is so readily available, many of us may wonder, is Styrofoam plastic?
In this article, we have found out that Styrofoam is a type of plastic and every concern regarding this material. I hope this article clears all your confusion. Thanks for reading it till now.