Expanded Polystyrene, friend or foe?

Expanded Polystyrene is a versatile material, is it good for development or a damage to ecosystems?


Expanded polystyrene, better known as EPS, is an indispensable ally in our daily lives, or is it a silent enemy that takes its toll on the environment? The answer is not as simple as that. This material has become an invisible protagonist in our daily routines, providing comfort, protection, and efficiency in a wide range of applications. However, its increasing presence in the environment has raised crucial questions about its impact and sustainability.

But what is EPS? This plastic is a type of stable low-density foam obtained from the fusion of styrene, a simple molecule derived from petroleum, which, with the help of water vapor and an expander, is inflated to obtain 98% air and 2% material spheres, a composition that gives it very useful characteristics, such as low water absorption, thermal properties, lightness, and shock-absorbing capacity [1].

EPS can be molded in varios shaped for food delivery, however these are single use. As consequence these products tend to end up in rivers and ocean basins, damaging mostly animals.

These characteristics are ideal for its application in a wide range of fields, making it almost impossible for us not to come into contact with it in our daily lives; from the packaging of fragile products to its use in construction, expanded polystyrene has proven to be a "loyal friend," ensuring that our most precious objects arrive safely, and that our homes remain comfortable.

In the construction sector, EPS aims to reduce the structural weight of walls and ceilings in prefabricated parts with improved thermal/acoustic insulation properties [2]. On the other hand, EPS plays an important role in the production of food packaging, thermal insulation in household appliances, and even in the medical industry, where it is essential for transporting organs and blood for transplants, as well as medicine that needs to maintain a low temperature until it reaches its destination [1,3].

The wide variety of uses of this material is reflected in terms of its consumption, and according to Ceresana (one of the main B2B market research institutes specializing in bioeconomy, plastics, and packaging), in 2022, around 7.2 million tons of EPS were consumed worldwide [4]. Similarly, it is estimated that 47.9% of the EPS consumed is used in the packaging industry [3].

Sounds like a wonderful product that has come to make our lives easier, doesn't it? Its characteristics offer us endless possibilities; however, EPS is a double-edged sword since this material has a significant environmental impact due to its extremely slow degradability, as well as the lack of infrastructure for its recycling.

Today there are a large number of studies that show how harmful the use of expanded polystyrene can be due to the large amount of accumulated waste that it leaves behind during and after its useful life. Clearly, this problem has led various organizations to seek a second life for this waste, offering interesting and functional options, such as improving the properties of asphalt concrete by adding crushed polystyrene waste [5], or obtaining fuels and adhesives from the treatment of EPS waste [6]. However, projects of this nature do not seem to be scalable solutions considering the large volume of current EPS consumption.

The production of EPS and its imminent arrival (like most waste) in landfills is reflected in a linear economic model (see Figure 1). This type of economy is based on taking the necessary resources, manufacturing the goods to be sold, making a profit, and disposing of everything that is not needed, including the product at the end of its life cycle [7].

Linear Economy models have consequences in both ends. At the beginning of the chain a short of supply in the long term and at the end a production of waste that can't be recovered later on.

It seems that the benefits of this material are directly proportional to the problems it brings with it, but is the outlook for the use of EPS really so bad? It is a complicated question to answer; however, the impact it has on the environment is undeniable. For example, EPS waste deposited in a landfill contributes to global warming due to slow degradation for up to 500 years in the open air [1]. And that's not all, EPS tends to end up in the world's oceans, giving rise to another problem, which is the production of micro and nanoplastics in the oceans through the photodegradation of EPS by sunlight [9]. These types of plastics end up in the food chain, mainly in marine ecosystems, but there is concern about the presence of plastic waste as part of human ingestion [10].

As it has been observed, the use of EPS brings with it serious problems, which is why it is essential to implement alternatives that provide the same benefits but at the same time allow for eliminating and/or reducing the environmental disadvantages of the production and use of single-use petroleum-based products. There are several projects that seek the development and implementation of biodegradable options, however, these are up to 60% more expensive than petroleum-based options.

At BioPlaster Research, we have developed GreenShell, a solid foam formulated from a blend of natural polymers that uses sargassum collected from the Caribbean Sea as a key raw material. GreenShell not only seeks to be an alternative to EPS by providing a solution to the environmental problems caused by it but also seeks to transform a problem such as the massive arrival of sargassum (which negatively affects coastal communities) into a material with similar or even superior properties to EPS, with competitive prices to EPS.

It is clear that EPS has been essential for economic development in many industries since its creation and we can hardly imagine life without a material with its characteristics. However, the negative impact it has on the environment is something that cannot be overlooked. The Bioplaster research team is aware of this and seeks to provide real solutions through the production of cutting-edge biodegradable materials, as in this case, GreenShell.


  1. Mollehuara, M. A., Cuadrado, A. R., Vidal, V. L., & Camargo, S. D. (2022). Systematic review: Analysis of the use of D-limonene to Reduce the Environmental Impact of Discarded Expanded Polystyrene (EPS). IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science, 1048(1), 012003. https://doi.org/10.1088/1755-1315/1048/1/012003 
  2. Prasittisopin, L., Termkhajornkit, P., & Kim, Y. H. (2022). Review of concrete with expanded polystyrene (EPS): Performance and environmental aspects. En Journal of Cleaner Production (Vol. 366, p. 132919). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2022.132919  
  3. Marten, B., & Hicks, A. (2018). Expanded Polystyrene Life Cycle Analysis Literature Review: An Analysis for Different Disposal Scenarios. En Sustainability (United States) (Vol. 11, Número 1, pp. 29–35). Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. 140 Huguenot Street, 3rd Floor New Rochelle, NY 10801 USA. https://doi.org/10.1089/sus.2017.0015  
  4. Ceresana. (2023). Expandable Polystyrene Market Report. https://ceresana.com/en/produkt/expandable-polystyrene-market-report  
  5. Akter, R., & Raja, R. M. (2022). Effectiveness Evaluation of Shredded Waste Expanded Polystyrene on the Properties of Binder and Asphalt Concrete. Advances in Civil Engineering, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1155/2022/7429188 
  6. Uttaravalli, A. N., Dinda, S., & Gidla, B. R. (2020). Scientific and engineering aspects of potential applications of post-consumer (waste) expanded polystyrene: A review. En Process Safety and Environmental Protection (Vol. 137, pp. 140–148). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psep.2020.02.023  
  7. Sariatli, F. (2017). Linear Economy Versus Circular Economy: A Comparative and Analyzer Study for Optimization of Economy for Sustainability. Visegrad Journal on Bioeconomy and Sustainable Development, 6(1), 31–34. https://doi.org/10.1515/vjbsd-2017-0005  
  8. Hidalgo-Crespo, J., Jervis, F. X., Moreira, C. M., Soto, M., & Amaya, J. L. (2020). Introduction of the circular economy to expanded polystyrene household waste: A case study from an Ecuadorian plastic manufacturer. Procedia CIRP, 90, 49–54. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.procir.2020.01.089 
  9. Song, Y. K., Hong, S. H., Eo, S., Han, G. M., & Shim, W. J. (2020). Rapid Production of Micro- And Nanoplastics by Fragmentation of Expanded Polystyrene Exposed to Sunlight. Environmental Science and Technology, 54(18), 11191–11200. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.0c02288  
  10. Xanthos, D., & Walker, T. R. (2017). International policies to reduce plastic marine pollution from single-use plastics (plastic bags and microbeads): A review. En Marine Pollution Bulletin (Vol. 118, Números 1–2, pp. 17–26). Pergamon. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2017.02.048