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Polystyrene marks a milestone; parting with old annual reports and product brochures

by Alexander H. Tullo
June 20, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 23


Happy birthday, polystyrene

A photo of polystyrene foam.
Credit: Shutterstock
Ready to recycle? Polystyrene has become one of the most familiar plastics.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of polystyrene, and while some have argued it’s time for this and other polymers to retire, others envision a greener future for the material.

Polystyrene sprang from the earliest days of polymers and plastics, even before Wallace Carothers’s work with nylon 6,6 at DuPont in the 1930s.

After perfecting a process for making styrene from ethylbenzene and polystyrene from styrene, the German conglomerate IG Farben brought polystyrene to the market in 1931.

Polystyrene is strong, colorizes well, and has a glossy finish. The plastic quickly built a market in injection-molded goods like television housings, toys, cassette tapes, and compact-disc jewel boxes.

And of course, polystyrene products are ubiquitous today as foam for insulation, packaging material, egg cartons, cups, and food-service containers. These latter applications got the entire plastics industry in hot water in the 1990s when public opinion turned against the excesses of McDonald’s fast-food clamshell containers. The polystyrene industry tried recycling, but the postconsumer material is too light and dirty to gather and clean economically, so very little polystyrene gets recycled.

But this fact may be changing. Polystyrene lends itself to established recycling technologies that are becoming more popular, says Cassie Bradley, sustainability and circular-economy manager for polystyrene maker Ineos Styrolution. “Polystyrene has the advantage that in advanced recycling, it is very easy to be depolymerized,” she tells Newscripts.

Ineos Styrolution has plans in the works for depolymerization plants in France and Illinois. It is also collaborating with the start-up Pyrowave, which is developing a technology to break the polymer down with microwave radiation, and with Polystyvert, which aims to use a solvent to purify polystyrene.

While challenges, such as the logistics of collecting the material, remain, the industry is hoping that processes like these will ensure another 90 years of polystyrene.


Moving uncovers chemical treasures

A photo of an Elf Atochem product brochure.
Credit: Alex Tullo/C&EN
Artistic flair: Product brochures were once gloriously illustrated.

C &EN’s New York City office is moving soon to a smaller space and has been streamlining. So this Newscriptster has been filling dumpsters with old documents from filing cabinets.

The task is a reminder of how arduous putting together a magazine used to be. The cabinets were filled with years of annual reports from scores of companies. Until the early 2000s, we used to call or write to companies every year and ask them to send us physical copies of their annual reports in the mail. We used these for statistical articles like the Global Top 50 and kept them as references later on.

Before the internet, we had to save these scraps of information in case they might be useful for future articles. The cabinets still contain plenty of old product brochures, as well as press releases from the PR Newswire dot matrix printer that blared in the office.

Still, this sentimental C&EN staffer couldn’t bear to discard some things. This includes the annual reports of chemical companies long gone through mergers, like Borden, Ciba Specialty Chemicals, Rhône-Poulenc Rorer, and Union Carbide. It is nice to retain physical evidence that they once existed.

The annuals contain gems. Monsanto’s 1997 report compares the burgeoning use of genetic information to Moore’s law, which predicts that the number of transistors on a microchip will double every 18 to 24 months. The report says this “exponential growth in biological knowledge” should be called “Monsanto’s Law.”

An Elf Atochem product brochure, possibly from the 1980s and gorgeously illustrated, warns of the “Grignard goblins.” It discusses how the ­company was able to “tame” relatively hazardous Grignard reagents through complexing with tetrahydrofuran.

Perhaps we’ll keep these artifacts a little longer. They could be useful for a story.

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