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Is Polystyrene Toxic? What You Need to Know!

pile of styrofoam

If you have some Styrofoam lying around, you may have wondered about what it’s actually made of. It’s a compound called polystyrene, which is technically a type of plastic. That’s right—Styrofoam is plastic!

Polystyrene is also used as an inert type of insulation for walls, refrigerators, washers, and other appliances. Polystyrene insulation for walls is typically much denser than your average Styrofoam coffee cup, though.

As we all know, plastics have health hazards. The main ones are from burning polystyrene or repeatedly eating on melted Styrofoam. Don’t worry. When intact, polystyrene products are generally safe to be around humans. However, the main compound, styrene, is recognized by both the EPA and WHO as a known carcinogen.

As long as you’re not burning Styrofoam en masse in a bonfire out back, we’re pretty sure you’re safe.

solar power divider

Is Polystyrene Bad for the Environment?

Extremely bad. In fact, polystyrene production is the fifth largest¹ contributor to pollution on our planet! It releases over 90 hydrocarbons when burned, contributing directly to global warming via the greenhouse effect.

It gets worse, we’re afraid. Foam products made of polystyrene, including Styrofoam, are a huge ocean pollutant. When foam gets into the ocean, it breaks apart repeatedly until it becomes bead-like microplastics. Fish and other marine animals think they can eat these, and they’ll eventually die from starvation if they eat enough.

To make matters even worse, these microplastics are carcinogenic.

woman throwing styrofoam cup on the bin
Image By: Julio Lopez, Unsplash

How to Safely Dispose of Polystyrene

We now know that polystyrene is really bad for the planet, animals, and our bodies in some cases, so it stands to reason we should responsibly dispose of the stuff. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to recycle polystyrene products because a lot of the waste is used in food containers. Yes, like your old Chinese takeout boxes. Polystyrene insulation is also a waste product once you’re done with it.

All polystyrene products should be thrown in the trash. Unfortunately, most polystyrene products are largely composed of air, and it’s not economical to recycle in most cases. There are some companies that will accept polystyrene products for recycling, where it’s broken down into pellets and used to make other plastic products. Used food containers are out, so it’s probably best to just avoid them when possible.

How to Repurpose Polystyrene

You could also repurpose polystyrene products and make them do double duty in your life. It’s a great insulator, obviously, so you can use egg cartons and Styrofoam trays as soundproofing materials. Just tape them to the walls of whatever room you want to soundproof. It’s particularly great for home offices and rooms where instruments are played.

Be careful using polystyrene inside, because most products haven’t been treated with a fire retardant and could pose a fire hazard in some cases.

You can use it for tons of other household stuff too. Let’s take a look below at some things you can do with your old polystyrene products.

Image Credit: Ekaterina43, Shutterstock

What to Do With Polystyrene:

  • Keep it as packing material for if you move.
  • Use it to raise furniture.
  • Break it up and mix it into the soil around your plants to provide aeration and improve drainage.
  • Mix it with acetone in a glass bowl to create your own homemade superglue.
  • Break it up and use it to start seedlings.
  • Insulation for outdoor buildings.

solar power divider Conclusion

Polystyrene is incredibly versatile stuff, but it has significant risks for the planet, our oceans, and even us if we aren’t careful. It’s best to avoid polystyrene products when possible or to reuse it for as long as possible before throwing it in your garbage bin.

Featured Image Credit: Jonas Gerlach, Unsplash


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