Polystyrene, also known as styrofoam, was discovered in Germany in 1839. The product we know as styrofoam was not invented, however, until around World War II by Ray McIntire, who worked for Dow Chemical Company. He was looking for a way to insulate electrical wire in planes and found the original polystyrene product was too stiff. Today, his invention is still used for electrical insulation and is has many other applications as well.
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The biggest environmental hazard in polystyrene is the styrene, which is classified as a possible carcinogen. Chronic exposure can also damage the central nervous system. When burned, it releases 57 hazardous chemical compounds into the air and its manufacture creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste. Creating polystyrene involves using petroleum, a non-renewable energy source that's highly toxic to the environment.
Styrofoam has excellent insulation properties, so many places still use styrofoam cups for their hot and cold drinks. It's also used by many food manufacturers to keep food, such as eggs and meat, fresh in the grocery store. The most popular version of styrofoam products is probably the packing peanut, a small piece of styrofoam used in shipping to keep fragile items from being damaged in transit.
Styrofoam in School Projects
Styrofoam is an excellent material for school projects. It's lightweight, and if you get sheets instead of balls or blocks, extremely malleable. One of the more popular uses of styrofoam in schools is to make models of the solar system, since styrofoam balls of varying sizes are excellent scale planets.
Styrofoam Projects Around the House
Styrofoam is non-recyclable, so to reuse it in any fashion is a way to cut back on the fifth largest creator of hazardous waste. You can create vases or small lamps with old pieces of styrofoam, carefully cleaning any piece that was used to hold food. Making a wreath or other holiday decoration is another interesting way to use styrofoam.