Expanded polystyrene (C8H8)n, known as EPS or styrofoam, consists of up to 98% air by volume, making it a great packaging material. However, it is more difficult to recycle than other plastics and is also bad for the environment (floating in the oceans and ingested by marine animals, for example). Expanded polystyrene in the form of packing “peanuts” and molded shapes has one very undesirable property for the end user: static electricity. When you open a box with this material, the packing peanuts and detritus formed when you break larger pieces for disposal have a strong tendency to draw electrons away from other materials—even the air. This results in a net negative charge, and EPS, being an insulator, ensures the excess charge remains localized and does not easily dissipate. The result is that the EPS particles and peanuts stick to just about everything. They also repel each other which often becomes a point of frustration when you try to corral the plastic peanuts in a garbage bag.
Fortunately, there is another option that is better for the environment and does not suffer from static electricity: starch-based packing materials made from corn or other plant materials. You have undoubtedly come across cornstarch packing peanuts and maybe even noticed that they dissolve easily in water. But did you know this material can also be shaped into molded forms and sheets?
I’d like to see “styrofoam” packaging materials completely replaced by starch-based alternatives. Though currently these bio-derived materials are a little heavier than EPS and cost a little more to manufacture, with increased utilization and further research & development these current challenges can be overcome.
The next time you receive a package in the mail (or purchase an item at the store) from a manufacturer or a distributor that uses EPS materials, why not write them and ask them to use starch-based packaging materials instead? And, be sure to thank manufacturers and distributors that are already using starch-based packaging materials. As consumers, we have a responsibility to “move the needle” towards a more sustainable future for humanity on planet Earth.