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Polystyrene turned into a useful chemical

Words by Smiley Team

As the climate crisis ramps up and pollutants are found across the world, people are searching for solutions and answers to address the growing issue. Much of the pollutants we worry about end up in the ocean in places like the Pacific Garbage Patch, made up of everything from plastic straws and to-go containers, to things as large as tires. 

But new research may leave use for much of the styrofoam waste that ends up in nature. 

Polystyrene, better known as styrofoam, has been turned into an important chemical found in seaweed called diphenylmethane or DPM, in a lab setting using UV lights and a chemical catalyst to start the reaction.

DPM is used in everything from fragrances and soaps to drug production, and this might also serve as an alternative use to the expensive to recycle styrofoam.

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“Many municipal recycling facilities instruct residents not to put polystyrene in their home recycling bins,” explains lead author Professor Greg Liu, of Virginia Tech. “Currently, the main method for recycling polystyrene yields a product that is often too low-quality to make the process economically viable. In other words, if a recycling plant tries to recycle polystyrene on a large scale, it will either need a financial boost, such as a government subsidy, or the operation risks running out of money and shutting down.”

The study not only showed the technology and how it works but also how economically viable it may be in different regions and its environmental impacts. 

The EPA estimates that the US produces more than 3 million tons of polystyrene every year, and most of that’s thrown away. The plastic is unique compared to other plastics in that it lasts much longer, up to 1,000 years, and has been linked to a few forms of cancer. 

Other countries are also trying to address polystyrene, like Scotland where single-use styrofoam is completely banned, and in Lithuania, researchers have been working on a takeout package that has no plastic whatsoever. 

Inspired to Act?

DONATE: Surfrider Foundation is an organization that focuses on protecting oceans and beaches. Consider donating. 

SUPPORT: As simple as it sounds try and find ways to better recycle in your life and keep pollutants out of the environment.

This article aligns with the following UN SDGs

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