Polystyrene Packaging
Paper void fill

The Best Way to Replace Polystyrene in Packaging

Polystyrene packaging in its many forms has contributed significantly to keeping products safe in storage and transit. 

Often known erroneously by the brand name ‘Styrofoam’, polystyrene’s benefits led it being used almost exclusively throughout the last four or five decades for everything from coffee cups, to takeaway boxes, to form-fitted electronics infills that perfectly contour, say, a TV. 

But many authorities have taken the decision to ban the use of polystyrene in food and product packaging – and the UK is going to introduce a plastic packaging tax in April to encourage a transition to recyclable and reusable packaging.

So why have they banned the material, and can manufacturers replace it with a similarly useful material?

Why polystyrene is being banned by authorities

Most forms of polystyrene, technically speaking, can actually be recycled, but most local authorities in charge of recycling either don’t have the facilities to recycle the material, or it’s cost-prohibitive to collect it due to how much volume it takes up in transit.

One solution is to advocate for better recycling facilities to divert waste from landfill, but an amount of any product is going to end up leaving the recapture stream. Having all the facilities in the world doesn’t necessarily mean that polystyrene products will consistently be put into recycling bins.

This then means that it either ends up as loose environmental waste or in landfill and, as we’re likely aware, pollutes for hundreds of years. While the plastic itself isn’t necessarily toxic (it’s not ‘poisonous’), it clogs up marine life and renders ground infertile. After all, not much can grow in a place where the sunlight’s blocked by plastic.

If we instead assume that anything that can be wasted should be easily biodegradable, then there opens up a whole world of possibilities – ones that don’t cost the world!

However, to figure out the best ways of replacing polystyrene, we need to address which of its forms we’re talking about.

Types of polystyrene

Polystyrene is synthesised using Styrene, a derivative of the petrochemical compound Benzene. At room temperature, it’s naturally transparent and solid, which is why it’s used in a variety of ways that you may not expect: CD ‘jewel cases’, for example, are made from polystyrene. But these things aren’t single use and don’t usually end up creating environmental waste.

The problems of polystyrene packaging are usually caused by expanded polystyrene (EPS) or extruded polystyrene (XPS).

Expanded Polystyrene (EPS)
EPS is the rigid type of polystyrene that you’ll see used in packaging for goods. It’s lightweight and rigid due to its closed-cell structure. You can get open-celled polystyrene but it’s a niche we don’t need to get into here.

Extruded Polystyrene (XPS)
XPS is made in a continuous fashion so has a relatively smooth surface and is much denser than EPS – which makes it a common higher-end insulation material. It’s the brightly coloured stuff you’ll see builders putting into walls!

Closed vs Open Cell
The main difference between closed and open cell polystyrene is, as it sounds, whether the cells are intentionally closed (for rigidity) or left open (for flexibility) – such as with foam inserts. The way the plastic can be shaped creates lots of variation in use – you could, for example, put lots of air into a closed-cell shape so that the result is like lots of miniature footballs.

The most problematic form of polystyrene is EPS, simply because of the sheer volume of its use in single-use applications like food and goods packaging. The vast majority of building insulation ends up in buildings and stays there for (theoretically) ever, but Friday night’s kebab box usually stays in landfill forever.

So what alternatives are there to Polystyrene?

The main two (and most polluting) uses for polystyrene are either as packing peanuts (for loose goods) or for the rigid void-filling types used to protect fragile 

goods. Both of these solutions can be achieved with different materials – ones which are much more easily recycled!

Paper Void Fill
Plastic ‘packing peanuts’ – the loose bits of polystyrene used to shore up outer cartons or provide cushioning for loose goods – are a nightmare to recycle at home. Instead, you can use a paper-based void fill. These are essentially sheets of brown paper that are scrunched up to create a cushioning effect. Alternatively, shredded strips of cardboard have the same effect of shoring up items and stopping them being knocked inside the box in transit.

Honeycomb Card Corner & Edge Protection
Rather than moulded polystyrene blocks for edge protection in transit, using honeycomb cardboard for edge & corner protection offers the same level of protection for a relatively equal amount of space. Because cardboard is so easy to work with, it’s simple to design cuts and folds that make storing the edge protection effective. You can usually store patterns flat, and the cuts make assembly a case of folding at the right points.

Honeycomb Thermal Liners
Packaging for food deliveries comes with the unique challenge of temperature regulation – keeping food either hot or cold.

Current polystyrene liners tend to work by providing a non-conductive barrier. That is, through being dense, they block the transmission of heat and so either help to keep something warm or cold. 

However, honeycomb cardboard can have the same effect, providing an insulated layer of air between the internal compartment and the outside – much like double glazed windows! 

Increasingly, there are more and more innovative solutions being developed to address the needs of industries, and we’re excited to be stepping into the future on the right foot.

See more of our sustainable, recyclable packaging solutions or get in touch to discuss a custom solution.

31 January 2022