Plastic Pollution

Study: Styrofoam Might Last Only Decades, Not Millennia, in the Ocean

Researchers from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution say that sunlight can break down polystyrene within a few decades.

|

From Maine to Maryland, from San Francisco to San Diego, legislators and city councilmembers have been banning expanded polystyrene—often known by the brand name Styrofoam—because they believe these products can last for millennia in the ocean. But new research suggests that polystyrene might break down into organic compounds much more quickly than expected, lessening its long-term environmental impact.

Earlier this month, researchers with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a study finding that sunlight can breakdown polystyrene into organic carbon and trace amounts of carbon dioxide within a few decades.

"The sunlight creates a pair of photochemical scissors and cuts the plastic enough so that it is no longer plastic, it's this cut up skeleton of a plastic," says Chris Reddy, one of the authors of the study. The end result is organic carbon that then dissolves in seawater.

That process can take decades. Sunlight can also complete oxidize polystyrene into carbon dioxide (converting it into "thin air," Reddy says), a process that can take about 10 times as long.

In the past, scientists and policy makers had assumed that the degradation of polystyrene was controlled by how quickly tiny microbes could break the material down. Because polystyrene is difficult for these microbes to devour, people believed it would effectively last forever in the oceans. But the same things that make polystyrene hard for microbes to consume also make it easier for sunlight to break it apart.

While this study only focused on polystyrene, sunlight may play a similar role in breaking down other plastics. Reddy tells Reason that "it's entirely reasonable that photochemistry may be a factor in other plastics as well."

Previous estimates of how much plastic debris is in the ocean were predicated on the idea that any plastic that entered the marine environment was effectively going to stick around forever. And yet when scientists have gone looking for that plastic, they've turned up a lot less than they were expecting. One 2014 study estimated that 99 percent of the stuff was missing.

One theory at the time was that fish were eating the plastic and then passing it out in feces which then sank to the ocean floor. Another idea was that organisms were sticking to the plastic pieces and dragging them to the bottom of the ocean.

The decades-long period of time it takes for the sun to breakdown polystyrene still makes it an environmental hazard, Reddy stresses.

"Even if we removed the plastic in a decade or 20 years, it's still 20 years of it being able to create to some kind injury to wildlife," says Reddy. "By no means are we giving any sort of plastic pollution a free pass."

But if polystyrene does eventually dissolve, that means the material is more manageable than previously thought. And that in turn makes case for plastic bans weaker, particularly in rich countries with well-functioning waste management systems.

The U.S. and Europe are responsible for about 40 percent of plastic production but only 2 percent of marine plastic waste, according to a 2016 World Economic Forum study. Asia is responsible for 45 percent of plastic production and 82 percent of plastic waste. A better environmental solution, therefore, would focus on better waste collection, particularly in Asia.

Advertisement

NEXT: Florida Cops Went to Absurd Lengths to Entrap Man Who Showed No Interest in Underage Sex

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. And to think people were yelling at me for all of these years because I would drive my car to the beach and dump all my styrofoam in the ocean.
    I expect some apologies.

    1. The Greeks in particular, since the wood from their ships has been littering the ocean floor for millenia.

    2. You gotta stop using those disposable styrofoam buttplugs. Turtles are dying.

      1. That was an error on my part. I thought the turtles could handle it. I threw them into the ocean along with the styrofoam.

    3. हमारे ब्लॉग pradhanmantri-yogana.in/ पर आपका स्वागत है| यह ब्लॉग आपको Pradhan Mantri Yojana के बारे में जानकारी प्रदान करता है| इस ब्लॉग से आपको pradhan mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana और कई योजनाओ की जानकारी प्राप्त होगी|
      https://pradhanmantri-yogana.in/

  2. If Greta Thunberg read this article she would cry.

    Assuming her psychological programming allowed for such emotion.

    1. I think she cries on cue. She just does what she’s told.

    2. HOW DARE YOU!?

      1. REEEEEEEEEEE

    3. +10000000°00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

  3. Of course, none of this applies to items disposed of in a properly design landfill.
    Sad. All that social science wasted.

    1. Actually, it does. At least sometimes. The Japanese have identified a newly-evolved microorganism which digests styrene. It was first in landfills. It “digests” styrene and reduces it to its basic hydrocarbons, which can, theoretically, then be re-manufactured back into plastic. The technology has to be developed, of course, but the end result can be seen as the ultimate in recycling.

      1. Actually, I stand corrected… IIRC, I think it was Greeks who first identified it.

    2. A match makes a Styrofoam cup disappear in a second.

  4. “The U.S. and Europe are responsible for about 40 percent of plastic production but only 2 percent of marine plastic waste, according to a 2016 World Economic Forum study. Asia is responsible for 45 percent of plastic production and 82 percent of plastic waste. A better environmental solution, therefore, would focus on better waste collection, particularly in Asia”.

    The Atlantic slammed Andrew Yang for *Republican Talking Points* as he explained the total carbon footprint of the U.S. compared to Asia, while admitting that free market technologies and innovation are constantly lowering the U.S. footprint. If you don’t sign on to the Green New Deal (marxism for the U.S. economy), you’re apparently not a Democrat.

    1. Or we could just nuke Asia?

      1. And Yang (and all the other Democratic Party candidates).

      2. I don’t see how we have any choice but to nuke all those Chinese an Indian coal power plants.
        They are an existential threat!

    2. It’s interesting to watch the blue team rift between the original Democrats and the Democratic Socialists, with a dash of the Green party sitting on the sidelines wishing a pox on both their houses.

      If ranked choice voting ever manages to break out of the cage both teams’ establishments are trying to keep it in, it’ll be interesting to see whether either the red or blue teams can maintain their coalitions given the pressures each is facing.

      1. I presume that if ranked choice voting wasn’t some sort of threat to the duopoly, more jurisdictions would have adopted it by now.

  5. “But new research suggests that polystyrene might break down into organic compounds much more quickly than expected…”

    So the science isn’t settled? Got it.

    1. #StyrofoamDenier!

      The Science *is* settled!

    2. Anyone who has ever owned a plastic lawn chair in Florida knows the sunlight breaks them down, and you are taking you life into your own hands if you sit in it after the second summer. And these eggheads are just figuring this out?

  6. Whether the Styrofoam breaks down in a few decades or a few millennia is not the point, it was never the point. Styrofoam is a man-made material designed for his comfort and convenience and therefore it’s a sin. Life is suffering and all things that ease our suffering are sinful. Humans are wicked, sinful creatures and must be punished for their sins. We can no longer count on God to torment the wicked and therefore we must take it upon ourselves to bring down the righteous fury, the wrath and the vengeance and the terrible swift justice of Gaia Almighty. It is the Will of the Goddess that we be damned.

    1. Good news, and obvious to anyone that has left one of those styrofoam coolers outside in the sun. This does not mean we shouldn’t make every effort to keep plastic out of the oceans.

      1. Well yes it does, because it has always been good policy to not make every effort for anything. There are always costs and benefits to consider.

        🙂 🙂 🙂

        1. You sound like a heretic, still clinging to your logic and reason instead of giving in to your feelings and emotions. So what if it costs trillions of dollars to lower the chance of environmental devastation by .002% – if it saves just one life, what does it matter how many thousands will die as a result?

          1. It is ‘for the children’ ™.

            1. Won’t someone think of the children?!

              1. The children are dying by the thousands for political correctness

          2. I keep most of my waste plastic in a big plastic bag. Then, on cold days, I burn it with the wood logs in my airtight wood stove … for heat. The only problem is that it looks kind of “trashy” sitting in that plastic bag by the wood pile on my hearth. But … I’m a just a red, dirt Okie … so it’s expected of me. LOL

      2. Using “every effort” is fucking retarded.

    2. The Rev will get you stealing his lines

    3. I thought it was sinful because it squeaks annoyingly

  7. Earlier this month, researchers with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a study finding that sunlight can breakdown polystyrene into organic carbon and trace amounts of carbon dioxide within a few decades.

    Anyone who pushed that line that styrofoam was “forever” was full of shit or never lived in the desert southwest.

    1. This is me, a chemist, being surprised that somehow other scientists didn’t know this already. Plenty of long chain polymers are pretty UV sensitive, and if you lengthen the time scale to decades, I’d be real surprised if you can find more than a handful that survive.

      I guess this is one of those situations were one discipline failed to read the literature from another for a few decades. It happens often enough, to be sure.

      1. You’re a chemist? Let me guess – you’re a shill for Big Chemical. Or brainwashed into believing their propaganda. It’s a known fact that all chemicals are dangerous and toxic and evil and yet studies have shown that the vast majority of innocent children and fuzzy puppies and cute endangered animal babies have an alarming amount of chemicals in nearly every single cell of their bodies. How can you live with yourself?

        1. He’s a shill for Big Ultra Violet.

          1. “He’s a real plastic man, living in a plastic can ….
            Making all his plastic plans for nobody ….
            Plastic man, please listen ….”

            I guess you get the drift!

      2. You Sun of a bitch!

        🙂

      3. I had a discussion with a professional chemist the other day and all styrafoam use was sun along with any home over a 1000 square feet. Some scientists are so deep they no longer see the chemistry

          1. Are you a Chinese emperor …. “Sin Nyot Sun”?

  8. So we just need to shoot all our 90’s era McDonald’s containers to the sun. Done and done. I can think of a few other things (people) to put in the bag as well.

    1. “Sin Nyet Tu Sun,” and be done with philosophy (and plastic), says Confucious.

  9. I don’t know why anyone here thinks this is good news. In our modern woke paradigm the ultimate universal sin is carbon dioxide, or just “carbon”. Once the righteous progressives learn about the MIT study, styrofoam will become even more evil, and their efforts to ban it will take on more fervor.

    1. They won’t be happy until we’ve all evolved into silicon based life forms.

    2. You are so “woke”!

    3. Styrofoam: the carbon capture the world needs.

  10. No!!!
    The watermelons have been lying?!

    1. Just like Scorpions: It is what they do.

  11. While this study only focused on polystyrene, sunlight may play a similar role in breaking down other plastics. Reddy tells Reason that “it’s entirely reasonable that photochemistry may be a factor in other plastics as well.”

    For this to be an amazing revelation, none of these “scientists” must ever have had to deal with plastic equipment that has endured long-term exposure to the elements.

    1. anyone who ever purchased plastic lawn furniture already knew this. But i guess scientist are to busy to look in their own back yard

      1. “anyone who ever purchased plastic lawn furniture already knew this. But i guess scientist are to busy to look in their own back yard”

        Pretty sure ‘scientists’ is not the correct label. Try ‘watermelons’. Muy betta.

        1. Watermelons are racist. And delicious.

  12. I guess this is one of those situations were one discipline failed to read the literature from another for a few decades He’s a shill for Big Ultra Violet!.

  13. So we just need to shoot all our 90’s era McDonald’s containers to the sun. Done and done. I can think of a few other things (people) to put in the bag as well.
    خرید تجهیزات شبکه

  14. Well, looks like I’ll need to tell my investors that New America Island can’t be built out of polystyrene.

  15. As per usual,these “wise guyz” don’t occupy the same planet WE do.

    I have personlly observed several different forms of sytofoam break down into almost dust in two to three years when left outside. I’ve watched the white “beadboard” foam insulation panels, styrofoam hot cups, and the plastic styrofoam packing “peanuts” break down into almost nothing in two to three years. And where I live we have long and cloudy’rainy winters, and though we see lots of sun in the summer, we also get clouds.

    So at most, I’d say the stuff is unidentifiable within one decade.
    I still refuse to buy those cups, prefer the closed-cell hardboard for insulation foam, never buy new packing peanuts, but save whatever comes in so I can foist it off on someone else when I ship things.

    As typical, the envroweenies exaggerate EVERYTHING they don’t like so as to make all those things climate crises, the better to “justify” their own existence.

  16. There was also some unpublished research conducted at MIT in the late 1970’s demonstrating that the “other” polymers (polyethylene, polypropylene) experienced degradation in their various properties simply from exposure to salt water and simulated wave action over relatively short time periods.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.