Polystyrene is one of the most commonly used plastics in the world. It is famous in both its hard plastic state and in its foamed state and has a umber of domestic as well as commercial and industrial uses. Polystyrene has become an everyday item thanks to its flexible nature, which allows it to be molded into almost any shape.

The substance was discovered in Germany in 1839. Eduard Simon distilled an oily substance from a gum tree, and after leaving the substance for several days he noticed that hit has turned into a jelly. It wasn’t until nearly a hundred years later that scientists realized that heating the substance caused a reaction that created the substance we today know as polystyrene.

Polystyrene is used in disposable cutlery, CD cases, and even household smoke detectors. Consumers are probably more familiar with the polystyrene foam, known under it’s common trademark name of Styrofoam. This foam polystyrene is commonly used to make foam drinking cups and as a packing material. In the industrial sector it is commonly used as an insulator as well. Polystyrene did for plastic what aluminum did for metal, and the industrial world realized that they had an easily formable, disposable substance that could be mass produced cheaply.

During the time of its discovery and first production the impact of recycling was unknown to the world’s scientific community. Unfortunately, this wonder substance is not easily recycled, with a recycle factor of 6. Its low scrap value and light weight mean that it is generally not accepted by recycle programs.

Polystyrene has an extremely long life and will not biodegrade for hundreds of years. It also has severe impact on the world’s oceans where it is one of the major polluting debris. It is highly toxic to marine life and is believed to release harmful carcinogens into the ocean due to constant exposure to the elements.

In 2007 two hundred countries agreed to aim for elimination of extruded polystyrene by 2020 due to the substance’s contribution to global warming. Currently research is being done into finding a replacement substance that is equally light weight and durable but that is more easily recycled.