Polystyrene, also known in its extruded form as styrofoam, is a polymer derived from the petroleum byproduct styrene. A rigid, colourless thermoplastic in its pure solid form, polystyrene is often aerated and extruded or moulded to form custom packaging, shipping containers, and a variety of other products. Despite a rather unsavory reputation owing to its nonbiodegradability, polystyrene nonetheless offers several advantages, ensuring its widespread use until a better alternative is developed.
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Excellent Physical Characteristics
Polystyrene in its different forms possesses physical characteristics that make it suitable for a wide range of applications. As a homopolymer called crystal polystyrene, its molecular architecture gives it near-perfect clarity, high tensile and flexural strength, and moderate impact strength. It exhibits high resistance to shrinkage, maintaining its strength and shape for long periods of time. Polystyrene foam, on the other hand, has exceptional insulating properties, a natural water- and shock-resistance, and a high strength-to-weight ratio. Finally, polystyrene's wide melting range makes it particularly easy to thermoform into various useful products.
Polystyrene applications range from kitchen cutlery and medical equipment to building materials and explosives. Polystyrene is easily moulded into different shapes, can be transparent or coloured as needed, and may even be combined with other resins and polymers to achieve more desirable physical properties. Its many applications include building, roof, and piping insulation, paint and plaster texturing, storage for food and beverages, display cases for appliances, packaging, laboratory equipment, and several more.
Recyclable and Minimizes Waste
Perhaps the biggest argument against the use of polystyrene is its nonbiodegradability, leading to fears of filled-to-capacity garbage dumps within a few short years; however, polystyrene lends itself to being recycled and remoulded indefinitely, even after years of use. Also, the majority of polystyrene products in dumps consist of styrofoam packaging, which is 5 per cent polystyrene and 95 per cent air. When compressed, polystyrene comprises 1 per cent by weight of the solid waste in landfills.
Because manufacturers can easily save on the cost of raw materials, the cost of recycled polystyrene is kept well within reason. Low production costs translate to low wholesale prices, as seen in the food service industry, where styrofoam easily wins over all other disposable and reusable products available. Polystyrene disposables are two to three times cheaper than disposable paper containers, and up to five times cheaper than reusable containers when labour, equipment, utility, and detergent costs are factored in. Polystyrene packaging also wins over other alternatives, acting as an all-in-one protection against heat, moisture, and impact, while at the same time keeping shipping costs at a minimum thanks to its light weight.
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