Is polystyrene foam the real enemy?

The end of a myth - Polystyrene foam do not deserve its bad rep.

Polystyrene foam, a “bad” plastic in popular belief, is used in many forms. From food containers to protective packaging, profiled forms, portable coolers, thermal insulation and dishes, the material gets around. Polystyrene foam often gets a bad rep, but does it really deserve it? What if we told you that polystyrene foam could be an eco-friendly choice? Would you be surprised? Shocked? Skeptical?

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A simple, efficient and most of all revealing analysis!

Among other things, we at Cascades make food packaging with see-through plastic (PET), polystyrene foam (XPS) and moulded pulp (MP). In 2009, we asked ourselves what their real environmental impact was. We brought out the big guns by hiring CIRAIG, a university centre that specializes in this area, to conduct a life-cycle assessment (LCA) of our food packaging products.

CIRAIG’s life-cycle assessment is based on a raw material’s journey from cradle to grave. It takes into consideration impacts on human health, ecosystems, climate change, resource depletion, and aquatic acidification and eutrophication. A comparative chart, which summarizes each product’s results for all of the assessment criteria, revealed unexpected findings…

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Surprising results!

In the above-mentioned context, the LCA has shown that polystyrene foam is nowhere near as “polluting” as people might think… It actually has the smallest environmental impact of all the products that were assessed. The results of this analysis illustrate how the production of trays (raw materials and processing) has a much greater impact than their disposal does (landfill, recycling, composting, etc.). As such, trays that take fewer resources to produce are generally the most environmentally friendly choices. Since polystyrene foam is more than 90% air, the quantity of raw material needed to produce it is minimal compared to other products with the same uses.

Cascades uses renewable energy to make see-through plastic and polystyrene foam products in Quebec. Renewable energy, such as hydroelectricity, has a significantly smaller impact on the environment than coal or nuclear energy.

Compared to other products, polystyrene foam does very well after it’s disposed of. As it is an inert material, it does not release any chemicals when it decomposes. Surprising, isn’t it?

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Understanding this misunderstood material…

Here are a few facts that show polystyrene foam’s relatively small impact:

  • A 500 g Quebec pork tenderloin wrapped in a polystyrene tray produces 40 times as much CO2 equivalent as the tray itself;
  • Driving 50 km emits more CO2 equivalent than all the polystyrene trays you use in a single year;
  • Using a BBQ for one minute produces more CO2 equivalent than a polystyrene tray.

So does polystyrene foam really deserve its bad rep? It isn’t as bad of a material as you thought, right?

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Post-consumer recycled PET: being responsible!

Since the life-cycle assessment was conducted, Cascades has integrated recycled material into the production of its packaging, including post-consumer recycled PET (RPET) in its clear plastic food packaging. A major first: we have also entered into an exclusive agreement for Nextlife to supply post-consumer recycled polystyrene (PS) from a commercial source. More details here.

We welcome your comments!

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About the Author
Michel Iliesco

Michel specializes in marketing management and business development. He has worked with Cascades Specialty Products Group since 2007. Michel is actively involved in several pilot projects relating to plastics recovery and recycling. For him, sustainable development means achieving the right balance between people, the environment and the economy. Michel graduated from the Université de Montréal in Marketing and International Business. He also has an MBA from HEC. Michel purposely chose to join Cascades because it shares his core values: respect, autonomy and entrepreneurship. As he often says, you learn by daring and trying. Look at things from many perspectives, be curious and progress… you never know!

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