Hate Styrofoam? Now There’s a Plant-Based, Eco-Friendly Alternative

If there’s anything environmentalists hate as much as plastic bottles, it’s probably Styrofoam containers.

Styrofoam is everywhere. We use it for coffee cups, takeout containers, throwaway travel coolers and more — all with serious environmental effects.

Styrofoam, which is made from petroleum, is a trademarked name owned by Dow Chemical. The generic product is referred to as extruded polystyrene foam.

Polystyrene foam is 95 percent air and very lightweight. It effectively insulates both hot and cold items, as well as protects breakables. Those little foam pieces of popcorn may get everywhere, but they do a terrific job padding items in shipments.

Unfortunately, as useful as it is, polystyrene foam is hugely problematic from an environmental point of view. The problems with polystyrene foam include:

  • Polystyrene foam is not biodegradable. It will remain in landfills, or wherever it’s disposed, for generations to come.
  • Styrene, one of the ingredients in polystyrene, is a possible human carcinogen that’s been linked to the development of leukemia and lymphoma.
  • Styrene can leach from food containers to the food or drink they hold. This is especially true if we reheat a foam container in the microwave. Coffee drinkers, are you listening to this?
  • While polystyrene foam is recyclable, it’s generally cheaper just to make new foam. That means there’s not much recycling going on.
  • It fragments easily into smaller pieces, which fish and other animals can confuse for food.
  • The production process creates air pollution.

An eco-friendly alternative to Styrofoam?

styrofoam containers in the trash

Photo credit: uncle_daeng/Getty Images

To address these problems, Washington State University researchers developed an environmentally friendly, plant-based material they say works better than polystyrene foam.

The new product is made from cellulose nanocrystals, which come from wood pulp. Cellulose is the most abundant organic polymer on the planet. The resulting creation made “ultralight composite foams that are highly strong, elastic, and super-insulating.”

Its developers say nanocrystalline cellulose has a uniform cellular structure that makes it a better insulator than polystyrene. In addition, this product is “also very lightweight and can support up to 200 times its weight without changing shape,” according to a WSU news release. “It degrades well, and burning it doesn’t produce polluting ash.”

Amir Ameli, WSU School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering assistant professor, and Xiao Zhang, associate professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, led the project.

“From the health perspective and from the biodegradability perspective, it’s much, much better than polystyrene — of course, we haven’t done a systematic biodegradation study yet,” Ameli told the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. “We’re not replacing 100 percent of the petroleum-based plastic, we’re replacing, let’s say 80 percent of it in the final product, which I think is still quite significant if we can scale it.”

Ameli said scientists are working on other alternative formulations that will further enhance the performance of nanocrystalline cellulose. In particular, they’re focusing on mechanical properties, so other applications could be developed for this material.

The sooner we eliminate polystyrene foam, the better — especially when you realize almost every bit of it ever created is still on the Earth in some form. If there’s a better biodegradable alternative, we want it. We need it.

Main photo credit: hyderabadi/Getty Images

73 comments

Barbara S
Barbara S21 days ago

thanks very much

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Shae Lee
Shae Lee22 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Leanne K
Leanne K22 days ago

Ban styrofoam in all its forms. That stuff is a damn nuisance and terrible for our world. And you have mugs at home, temember to take one with you if you must

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Lara A
Lara A22 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Paulo Reeson
Paulo R22 days ago

styrofoam should be banned everywhere.

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Carolyn K
Carolyn K24 days ago

Maine has just banned single-use Styrofoam containers! This is the first best step. The law, which will go into effect January 1, 2021, gives restaurants, caterers, coffee shops and grocery stores time to switch to alternative products. Alternatives do exist, witness the pulp-fibre material that egg cartons are often made from (the last-possible-use of recycled paper). Biodegradable and can also be reused (one example: https://dengarden.com/gardening/Growing-Seeds-in-an-Egg-Carton ).

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Anette S
Anette S24 days ago

Personally, this does not go far enough for me. I won't be satisfied until a 100 per cent solution is found and implemented.

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Lorraine Andersen
Lorraine A24 days ago

We need things to be done ASAP is this planet is to survive.

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Martha P
Maria P24 days ago

thank you

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Irene S
Irene S24 days ago

I don´t support single use stuff.

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