Scientists Struggle to Find Viable Alternative to Polluting Polystyrene

A material that has become widespread in packaging, coffee cups, cooler boxes, and food trays, expanded polystyrene was unintentionally created by Ray McIntyre over 80 years ago. 

Because there is no safe way to dispose of it and it takes at least 500 years to decompose, the product is poisonous. New statistics from Victoria University in Australia show that most of the expanded polystyrene produced ends up in landfills. The majority of it just whirls about our land and seas.

Research suggests that expanded polystyrene poses a significant risk to human health. The University of Vienna pathologists have warned that small polystyrene particles may enter our brains only two hours after consuming food tainted by its packaging. Because of their unusual chemical characteristics, the ‘blood-brain barrier,’ our brain’s natural protection against infection, is permeable to these plastic particles.

Scientific investigations have shown a connection between the ingestion of nano-sized polystyrene particles and gastrointestinal disorders. These disorders may lead to leakage of gut linings into the circulation, which in turn can trigger chronic systemic inflammation that is connected to cancer and heart disease. 

Researchers reported in the Journal of Hazardous Materials that male lab mice were infertile after swallowing tiny bits of polystyrene, which caused inflammation to destroy their testes.

The Australian government has implemented a ban on expanded polystyrene cups as part of a broader crackdown on single-use polystyrene products to curb the problem. Nevertheless, this prohibition has a loophole: companies are still allowed to sell polystyrene containers for food and drink that are used to convey raw or partially cooked goods.

Julia Bialetska and her husband, Eugene Tomlin, both Ukrainian emigrants now living in Spain, are working on a mushroom- and hemp-based alternative. Their packaging material, made of tough hemp fibers “glued” together with fungal strands, has already reached 7.2 tons of production. 

The world’s expanded polystyrene garbage is already damaging the environment by millions of tons, and scientists are hoping that tiny creatures may help. Bacteria in the digestive systems of clam-worms and mealworms, which live on land and at the seashore, have developed to convert polystyrene trash into nutrients that their hosts may absorb.