The Death of Styrofoam?

04/14/2010 5:00 AM |

The Heroes

They drive a banged-up, forest-green minivan, more deadbeat soccer mom than twenty-something inventor. The front passenger door creaks as I open it, feeling like it might come off in my hand. A colorful tangle of wires hangs from under the glove box, catching my backpack as I try to get my seatbelt on. The inside of the van smells like a garden after a spring rain: vegetables and topsoil.

Eben Bayer climbs in the driver side and smiles at me beneath a mop of light brown hair, “We once had grass growing in the front of this thing,” he says. “Not on purpose, though,” Gavin McIntyre adds from the bench seat in the back. Gavin has black hair and wears a patchy layer of stubble across a face framed by square, black-rimmed glasses and assorted piercings. He goes on to explain, as if it could happen to anyone, that some of their seed stock had fallen into various nooks and crannies in the van and had started to grow. I nod as we pull out of the parking lot in Green Island, New York, just north of Albany, and make a left turn onto a wet county road, heading to a local pub for lunch. I’ve been kidnapped by green inventors.

Rain falls lightly on the roof, barely audible as the conversation veers from R&D meetings to thermo molds to wind turbines. Some impressively technical stuff—at least if the car breaks down, I think, these guys can probably fix it. As the van corners sharply onto the interstate, a 10-inch piece of what looks like molded off-white Styrofoam, with curious pieces of brown bark and particulates laced throughout, slides across the dashboard and comes to a rest on the beat-up glove box in front of me. I pick it up and turn it around in my hands; it’s a little rough, but otherwise feels exactly like Styrofoam. “Sorry,” Eben says, taking it off my hands and tossing it in the back of the car, “It’s everywhere.” The material in question is called Ecocradle, an invention of Eben and Gavin’s, and it just might save the world.
This may sound like a big claim for something that looks like a dirty piece of old Styrofoam, but that’s the point; Ecocradle could very well spell the end of old-fashioned Styrofoam, and all its attendant environmental evils.

The Villain

A molecule of styrene, when combined with other molecules of the same polymer, creates polystyrene—the most common chemical used to make plastics and resins. When heated and combined with benzene and gasoline, polystyrene can be foamed and used to make extruded polystyrene or EPS, which is universally known by its DOW Chemical trademark… Styrofoam. Though heightened eco-consciousness over the last decade has increasingly marginalized Styrofoam as a “food-delivery system,” it remains the only method available for the packaging of fragile goods over 15 lbs for shipping, which means tens of thousands of pounds of the stuff cross the United States in the mail everyday.

Not incidentally, the same combination of chemicals that creates Styrofoam, minus the foaming process, will produce a slow burning, high-heat output petroleum jelly or what is more commonly known as napalm. Yup, napalm. But that’s far from the worst thing about EPS: for starters, it’s not biodegradable nor is it a candidate for mass recycling; it can’t be reused or broken down; oh, and styrene is a known carcinogen. Though we may not be able to see them anymore, the tiny beads of polystyrene that make up the larger EPS product remain in the environment, small enough to enter the food we eat, and, as a result, our blood. With Ecocradle, Eben and Gavin believe they have the solution to our Styrofoam woes.

7 Comment

  • This is amazing. Good job, fellas!

  • they were featured on an episode of some green home design show! so awesome!

  • i know Gavin we went to the same school – that kid is real smart.

  • No authoritative or regulatory body anywhere in the world classifies styrene to be a known cause of human cancer. Moreover, a study conducted by a “blue ribbon” panel of epidemiologists and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (November 2009) reports: “The evidence of human carcinogenicity of styrene is inconsistent and weak. On the basis of the available evidence, one cannot conclude that there is a causal relationship between styrene and any type of human cancer.”

    Priscilla Briones for the Styrene Information and Research Center (SIRC), Arlington, Virginia. SIRC ( is a trade association that represents interests of the North American styrene industry with its mission being the collection, development, analysis and communication of pertinent information on styrene.

  • Met you in Trader Joe’s this morning. check out
    Love the article!

  • @Priscilla

    As per the EPA’s website (…) :

    – Several epidemiologic studies suggest that there may be an association between styrene exposure and an increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma. However, the evidence is inconclusive due to multiple chemical exposures and inadequate information on the levels and duration of exposure.

    -IARC has classified styrene as a Group 2B, possibly carcinogenic to humans. (12)
    -Styrene oxide is a reactive metabolite of styrene and shows positive carcinogenic results in oral exposure bioassays. Styrene oxide has been detected in workers exposed to styrene. IARC has classified this metabolite as a Group 2A, probable human carcinogen. (7,12)
    -EPA does not have a carcinogen classification for styrene; the chemical currently is undergoing an EPA Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) review to establish such a classification.

    I stand corrected, sort of…

    … Though it is not a proven fact that Styrene is a carcinogen, it is most definitely not proven that it is not- with most evidence pointing to, yes, of course it is. And while the EPA may not recognize it officially as a carcinogen, it is safe to say that this stuff is not made of marshmallows. Its only a matter of time before it becomes official and you can bet your ass that the scientists who conducted the tests on this stuff consider it to be a “known” carcinogen. Despite the criss crossing governmental vetting system that oil companies are able to hide behind to protect the good name of their ingredients, the fact remains that the “toxic white stuff” is terrible, the truth will out, and you just don’t care about the earth.

  • Misrepresenting styrene’s carcinogenicity is not the only thing wrong with this article. Here are a few more:

    –Polystyrene is not the most common plastic. That would be polyethylene.

    –Styrofoam is an extruded polystyrene made by Dow and used only in building insulation applications. Gavin and Eben are going after expandable polystyrene, a different product made a different way. This is the product used to mold cups, coolers, packaging and the like.

    –Neither extruded nor expandable polystyrene are made by combining polystyrene with benzene and gasoline. I don’t know where you got this. This is how it goes, in short: benzene is reacted with ethylene to make ethylbenzene, which is converted to styrene. Styrene is reacted with itself (polymerized) to make polystyrene. To make expandable polystyrene, polystyrene beads are instilled with a gas, usually pentane, so that when they are heated the gas expands and the beads get soft and puffy and stick together in the shape (cup, shipping container, etc.) that you mold them to.

    –“The only method available for the packaging of fragile goods over 15 lbs for shipping”? That sounds bizarre to me–is this some kind of postal or insurance industry regulation?–but I suppose it could be true.

    That said, Ecocradle sounds like a cool product.