Polystyrene is a petroleum-based synthetic fiber widely used to make fabrics and materials in various industries, including clothing in the fashion world, similar to other plastic fabrics.
Polystyrene is a common ingredient found in bottles, containers, bags, packaging, cases, cutlery, apparel, and textiles.
The main advantage of synthetic polystyrene fiber is its very low cost. It has an extremely low cost per weight and is one of the most widely used plastics in the world.
But synthetic fabrics made of polystyrene aren't environmentally friendly or healthy. Their manufacturing has both health and environmental impacts.
Here is everything you need to know about polystyrene fabric and how it fares against other types of materials such as polyester.
In this article:
- What is polystyrene fabric?
- Is polystyrene a polyester?
- Is polystyrene plastic?
- Are polystyrene and Styrofoam the same thing?
- Is polystyrene used in clothing?
- Polystyrene uses
- Polystyrene properties
- Is polystyrene foam toxic?
- How dangerous is polystyrene?
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What is polystyrene fabric?
Polystyrene fabric is a textile made of polymer fibers obtained from a monomer called styrene. The thermoplastic polymer is made of different crystalline structures from petroleum-based plastics.
Also categorized as aromatic hydrocarbon polymer, polystyrene is found in multiple forms such as solid or foam. It's a very versatile plastic used to make a large variety of consumer goods.
The manufacturing of polystyrene involves the polymerization of the chemical styrene. It's usually produced in facilities that also make other synthetic textiles.
A plastic solution of the hydrocarbon compound styrene is first produced by the petrochemical industry from ethylbenzene obtained via a Friedel-Crafts reaction between benzene and ethylene.
Styrene is made through the dehydrogenation of ethylbenzene using steam and a catalyst, then distillation to purify the resulting solution.
There are many different forms of polystyrene, including molded PS, GPPS, HIPS, PS foams, EPS, XPS, and OPS.
Molded Polystyrene (PS) is made into various consumer products by injection molding. Thin sheets of polystyrene are heated up and molded into different objects that require a rigid and cheap plastic material.
General-purpose polystyrene (GPPS) plays a huge in today's economy and modern consumption models. It's used in compact disc cases, housings, frames, kits, cutlery, and more. But polyester is slowly replacing GPPS in many applications.
High impact polystyrene (HIPS) is a more expensive form of polystyrene with improved impact resistance. It has high tensile strength, impact resistance, and absorption capacity for deformation work.
Polystyrene foams are mostly made of air and good thermal insulators. They are commonly found in building insulation materials where good damping properties are necessary.
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is a tougher, closed-cell version of PS foam made of pre-expanded polystyrene beads. EPS is used for containers, insulation, and blocks in the automobile industry with a normal density range of 11 to 32 kg/m3.
Extruded polystyrene (XPS) is a polystyrene foam with higher stiffness and lower thermal conductivity. It's commonly found in crafts and architectural models with a density range of 28 to 45 kg/m3. Common XPS brand names include Styrofoam and Depron.
Oriented polystyrene (OPS) is a brittle type of polystyrene sheet made by stretching extruded polystyrene. It's cheap, transparent, lightweight, and used in packaging.
Is polystyrene a polyester?
Polystyrene and polyester are both plastic polymers but they commonly refer to two different materials.
Polyester is a family of polymers whose monomers are linked together by ester bonds. As a specific material, polyester refers to a type of polymers called polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
On the other hand, polystyrene is a vinylic polymer of styrene, an alkane chain of benzene molecules. The global polystyrene production volume reached 10.4 million tons in 2018.
Polyester is the most widely used fiber worldwide. 55 million tons of polyester fibers were produced in 2018. It represents 52% of global fiber production.
Polyester is made from synthetic materials derived from petroleum-based chemicals or petrochemical products. It's the most popular fiber used in the fashion world, for apparel and accessories.
The manufacturing of polyester fibers involves the polymerization of synthesized polymers compounds made from oil-derived materials.
Is polystyrene plastic?
Polystyrene is a thermoplastic polymer. It's a long chain hydrocarbon that can be readily softened and molded upon heating and therefore a plastic.
Plastics are synthetic or semi-synthetic materials that use polymers as the main ingredient. Like other plastic materials, polystyrene can be molded, extruded, or pressed into various forms and shapes.
Polystyrene is commonly found in many consumer goods in solid or foam states. It can be injection molded, vacuum formed, extruded, or expanded in a special process.
Polystyrene is a synthetic aromatic hydrocarbon polymer made from the monomer called styrene and is generally regarded as not biodegradable. It's one of the most widely used plastics.
Are polystyrene and Styrofoam the same thing?
Styrofoam is a trademarked brand name of closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam (XPS) manufactured by Dow Chemical Company, an American multinational chemical corporation headquartered in Midland, Michigan, United States.
Dow Chemical Company is one of the largest petrochemical businesses in the world. It manufactures plastics, chemicals, and agricultural products and aims to be a material science leader and deliver sustainable solutions in packaging, infrastructure, and consumer care.
Polystyrene is a thermoplastic polymer that can take many forms, including extruded foam. XPS has high stiffness and reduced thermal conductivity. It's commonly found in craft and insulation applications.
Styrofoam is also called Blue Board and is used as a thermal insulation material or water barrier in construction for walls, roofs, and foundations. It's a lightweight material and made of about 95% air.
The rigid insulation material is manufactured using an extrusion process. In buildings, it helps control indoor temperature and can significantly reduce energy use.
Is polystyrene used in clothing?
Polystyrene is a thermoplastic material used in various applications, including clothing in the apparel and textile industry.
It's commonly found in the fashion world as t-shirts, tank tops, fleece, circular knits, coats, sweaters, dresses, sportswear, footwear, underwear, and accessories.
Polystyrene fabrics are used extensively in clothing, like other plastic polymers such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, polyethylene, and polypropylene.
The synthetic aromatic hydrocarbon polymer can be turned into clothes, bags, shoes, accessories, and jewelry, as well as furniture, and home decor.
Polystyrene fiber is also used in household textiles and industrial materials. Although it can be used alone, polystyrene is usually blended with other natural or synthetic fibers in clothes.
Polystyrene is used to make a large array of consumer goods, such as clothing, food containers, building insulation material, cushioning, and packaging for shipping.
Polystyrene makes building blocks for automobiles, electronics, boats, motorcycles, toys, and many other consumer products.
Commonly used cups, plates, and other cutlery products contain polystyrene. It's a cheap alternative to paper-based or corn-based materials but less environmentally friendly, even though it can use less water and energy.
Polystyrene is an economical plastic material. Its cost per weight can be up to five times less than paper-based equivalents in packaging. It's versatile, lightweight, durable, and extremely convenient.
CD and DVD cases are usually made of polystyrene. Food trays and cartons typically contain polystyrene that protects against spoilage and damage.
Polystyrene foam is an excellent insulation material used in building walls, roofs, and foundations. It also has many industrial applications such as durable and resistant insulation in cold storage facilities.
Polystyrene is economical, soft, and lightweight. It's resistant to moths and most chemicals. It's relatively chemically inert and resistant to breakdown by many acids and bases.
Polystyrene fibers are usually durable, flexible, and elastic. They have excellent resiliency and recovery from bending deformation.
Polystyrene fabric is also highly resistant to sunlight and UV degradation. It can be dyed easily in brilliant colors.
High-impact polystyrene also resists cuts, ripping, and tearing. Expanded polystyrene is a rigid and tough material with outstanding insulation properties.
Polystyrene foams also have good damping properties. They are typically impermeable and used as a water barrier.
Unfortunately, polystyrene fabrics aren't breathable. They capture heat well and are best worn in winter. Polystyrene fiber limits airflow considerably and can lead to overly high body temperatures in hot climates.
Synthetic polystyrene fabrics are also easy to wash. However, washing polystyrene fibers in hot temperatures not only consumes an unnecessarily high amount of energy but also can melt and damage the fabric.
Polystyrene stays solid at room temperature but will melt if heated above about boiling water temperate.
Polystyrene is a thermoplastic polymer that isn't biodegradable. Especially in its foam form, it accumulates as litter and poses an enormous threat to wildlife, ecosystems, and the human environment.
Is polystyrene foam toxic?
Government safety agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority confirm that polystyrene is non-toxic and safe for use in contact with food, based on scientific tests over five decades.
Even though tiny amounts of polystyrene migrate into foods and beverages when used as packaging, the resulting levels of that exposure are extremely low and remain safe.
However, polystyrene foam poses a flammability hazard in manufacturing or storage. Its use is prohibited in any exposed installations in building insulation. Ignited foamed polystyrene plastic materials cause huge fires and losses of life.
Polystyrene also contains the toxic substances styrene and benzene. These dangerous chemicals are suspected carcinogens and neurotoxins hazardous to human and animal health.
How dangerous is polystyrene?
Polystyrene is a thermoplastic polymer obtained from a monomer called styrene. It's highly dangerous to human health and the environment in large quantities.
The National Research Council (NRC) reported in 2011 that styrene is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.
The ingestion of polystyrene fragments causes toxic effects even though it's safe for use in foodservice products.
Polystyrene is also resistant to photo-oxidation and takes hundreds of years to decompose in normal landfill conditions.
Polystyrene foam floats on water and blows in the wind. Animals may even mistake it for food. It endangers the health of birds and marine animals significantly.
"Styrene is a wonderful monomer that has many good uses. We think the NRC's decision further affirms our view that there are good uses and not-so-good uses of styrene. Disposable packaging, which exposes this molecule to our natural environment, is not a good use of this chemical. We hope this decision will encourage more companies to make the switch to safer, healthier alternatives."
- Eben Bayer, Ecovative Chief Executive Officer
Plastic waste, including polystyrene, is quickly becoming a global environmental and social issue.
Every year, the world produces more than 300 million tons of plastic, as reported by the United Nations. Eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean annually. Less than 10% of all plastic is recycled.
If current trends continue, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050. And the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption.
The biggest drawback of polystyrene is its impact on the environment. Even recycled, polystyrene isn't renewable, biodegradable, or compostable.
Polystyrene foams and microplastics pollute waterways and contaminate entire food chains, kill land and marine wildlife, and endanger human health.
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About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.