Name: S Hudson
Date: December 1991
Polystyrene foam has a bad rap. A workshop I attended gave me the
information that Polystyrene foam is actually very reusable. Is this true?
Sure, any material that does degrade or decompose is reusable. The
question is whether an economically viable system for collecting and reusing
it can and will be developed. Polystyrene foam manufacturers make money by making
polystyrene foam, not by reusing it. Ultimately, the cost to society might be lower
if it were collected and reused, but who will organize and pay for the effort?
Three watch-words for controlling material consumption are "reduce"-"reuse"-
"recycle". If you cannot avoid using polystyrene foam, you might find some other use
for it - polystyrene foam packing peanuts make pretty good drainage for potted plants
for example. As far as recycling goes (using discarded materials as raw
materials for producing new materials) I do not know of anyone who does it (my
city collects glass, metal, and paper, but not polystyrene foam). I am not enough of
a chemist to know if it is technically possible to recycle polystyrene foam, but I
take the lack of any recycling program to be a sign that it is cheaper to make
new polystyrene foam than it is to reuse old polystyrene foam for the immediate future. In
the distant future, it may be economical to mine landfills to retrieve
materials like polystyrene foam.
There are two common forms of polystyrene: extruded and expanded.
Extruded polystyrene is used for building insulation. It is strong, stable,
and absorbs little water. It can be, and often is, reused for building
insulation. Polystyrene foam is the brand name of extruded polystyrene manufactured
by Dow. Unfortunately, it has become a common term for all foam plastics.
Expanded polystyrene is less dense, has less insulating value, and can
hold water. It can also be used as building insulation (often called
"beadboard" as it is made of polystyrene beads), but it is also used for
coffee cups, sandwich boxes, packaging, and other disposable products.
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Update: June 2012