Spark the Conversation

Spark Science: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Styrofoam

October 2, 2017
Posted By: TELUS Spark

It’s not easy to get rid of Styrofoam - it takes about 500 years to start breaking down in our landfills! Even though we can’t recycle Styrofoam as easily, we can reduce and reuse it for different purposes. This experiment explores the science behind reducing Styrofoam with acetone.

Materials:

  • Styrofoam
  • Acetone
  • Glass beakers or jars
  • Stirring stick

Safety first! Make sure you do this experiment in a well-ventilated area with adult supervision as acetone is highly flammable and is a toxic substance. 

Step 1:

Pour acetone into glass jar

Step 2:

Place Styrofoam into jar

Step 3:

Watch the Styrofoam “vanish!” as the acetone in the nail polish remover acts as a  solvent and breaks down polystyrene!

Challenge 

What other solutions can break down Styrofoam? Try it!

What is Styrofoam?

Styrofoam is actually a trade name for expanded polystyrene. It was developed by a company called Dow Chemical. It’s cheap, it’s lightweight, it’s fantastic for packaging, and keeps your food warm. However, there is a huge environmental debate around the use of Styrofoam, so much so that certain cities have taken action to ban its use.

If you look on the City of Calgary website, it advises us not to put Styrofoam into the blue recycling bins because its non-biodegradable and not recyclable. Well, it can be recycled but there are a lot of implications. 

Why can’t Styrofoam be recycled?

We do have the technology to recycle Styrofoam, but it’s not common. Why? Styrofoam is 95% air and the transportation cost is too expensive to recycle Styrofoam. Because it’s so lightweight, sorting machines will also have a difficult time processing it. We don’t have the easily accessible means to recycle Styrofoam in Calgary as we do with bottles, which is why the city asks for Styrofoam to be placed in a bag and into our black garbage bins. However, places like Okotoks have facilities that have started to accept clean Styrofoam to recycle. 

What can we do to reduce and reuse styrofoam?

  • Use ceramic mugs instead of Styrofoam cups
  • Dissolve it or break it down using acetone
  • Find packaging peanuts that are made of corn rather than Styrofoam
  • Reuse Styrofoam for arts and crafts
  • Create a compost container using Styrofoam