At last there’s alternatives to polystyrene

Poppy Johnston

A red heart in acardboard box full of packing peanuts

A box full of those light polystyrene “peanuts” used to transport fragile goods may be an endless source of entertainment for small children but unfortunately, this ubiquitous packaging material is taking a serious toll on the environment and human health (yes, please keep it out of reach of your toddler!).

Heralded in the packaging game for its light weight and good insulating properties, polystyrene (sometimes called Styrofoam, a brand of polystyrene) is a non-biodegradable plastic made from non-renewable fossil fuels. It’s also inherently tricky and expensive to recycle because it’s often contaminated by food, grease or labels and so light that’s it’s cheaper to landfill than recycle. In fact, less than 30 per cent of the stuff is recycled.

Unfortunately, like all plastics, the material takes hundreds of years to decompose, releasing methane (a potent greenhouse gas) in the process. And, because it easily flakes into tiny pieces, it’s a troubling source of microplastics that are toxic when ingested by animals and people. Styrene, a component of polystyrene, has also been flagged as a likely carcinogen.

The good news is governments are clamping down on the problem, including in Australia where the federal government has committed to work with industry to stop the use of polystyrene in packaging by July 2022 as part of the National Plastics Plan.

Businesses are rising to the challenge. There have been promising innovations globally to improve the recyclability of the material, including Canadian company Pyrowave’s technology that recycle plastics using microwaves rather than thermal heat, as well as Polystyvert – another Canadian firm – that uses an essential oil to dissolve the product, leaving contaminants such as food to sink to the bottom.

Polystyrene manufacturers are also looking to close the loop on their operations. In Australia, polystyrene product manufacturer Foamex is upping its recycling capacity with a new machine at its Bayswater North plant in Melbourne.

The new recycling machine, which blitzes intact waste polystyrene into pellets in one  step, will help the manufacturer to slash the manual labour involved in recycling its range of polystyrene products used in building construction, insulation, shipping, packaging, sign writing and displays. This means the company will be able to recycle more polystyrene at a lower cost.

The business already sources scrap polystyrene from several places, including building sites, and works closely with contractors to collect waste material. It’s even taking drop offs from waste-conscious people in the community who want to save their waste from landfill (just make sure waste is clean and free of logos and tape).

Alternatives to polystyrene packaging are also cropping up.

Sustainable packaging company Planet Protector Packaging is using the naturally insulating properties of waste wool to create an eco-friendly alternative to polystyrene. Just as wool keeps sheep cool in summer and warm in winter, waste wool destined for landfill can be processed into a non-toxic packaging material to transport goods that are sensitive to temperature fluctuations, such as perishable food, safely.

Called Woolpack, the material is made in China from wool purchased from New Zealand and Australian farmers, providing them with an additional income stream.

Now five years old, the company with annual revenues over $5 million is poised to scale, launched a crowdfunding campaign earlier this month. The plan is to use the capital to build facilities in Australia, creating jobs and reducing reliance on goods manufactured overseas.

Other promising sustainable alternatives on the horizon have been made from popped corn, which like polystyrene is also full of air so very light, and mycelium, the vegetative part of fungus, which is also light weight and has decent insulating qualities.