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Polystyrene alternatives: should you be using them?

Ian Heskins: Last Updated 1st November 2023
Posted In: Environment | Guides and Advice xx 31628

Environmentally Friendly?

The focus on Polystyrene alternatives

If you are amongst the businesses searching for polystyrene alternatives, you are not alone.

Although most people rightly perceive it as unfriendly to the environment, difficult to recycle and bulky, Polystyrene (and in particular expanded Polystyrene or EPS) is still used by a large number of companies.

However, with renewed consumer focus on the environment and brands that can successfully convey their green credentials, there is growing consideration for the range of polystyrene alternatives for packaging.

But what are these alternatives? And are they any better for the environment? This guide aims to set out the following:

  • What expanded Polystyrene is.
  • The reasons for no longer using this material.
  • The foam material alternatives.
  • Other forms of eco-friendly packaging.


What is Polystyrene?

An explanation of Polystyrene and EPS

Polystyrene packaging can be solid or foam (expanded). Solid Polystyrene packaging includes DVD and CD cases. Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) or Styrofoam packaging is commonly used as inserts or void fill to protect items during shipping. Its use is also common for food packaging trays.

However, when most people refer to polystyrene packaging, they are usually talking about expanded Polystyrene (EPS) or extruded Polystyrene (XPS)

Without getting too technical, Polystyrene is manufactured by stringing together or polymerising styrene, a building-block chemical used to manufacture many products. In its expanded form, suppliers shape or fabricate it using injection moulding processes. This material can be as much as 95 per cent air.

Should you be using polystyrene alternatives
With a number of more cost effective (and sustainable) options available, is now the time to ditch polystyrene?

Many businesses frequently use it for protecting items during transit, such as TVs, consumer electronics, homewares, flat pack furniture and so on.

It is also commonly used to create “loose fill” packaging, such as peanuts or packing noodles. It was previously popular for single-use food containers, too. However, many countries/cities, including New York, have banned the use of the material for food and single-use applications.

Polystyrene vs Styrofoam

You may also have heard the term Styrofoam used, particularly when discussing single-use food and drink containers.

However, Styrofoam is simply a brand name of Dow Chemical’s extruded Polystyrene. The term is often used interchangeably with expanded Polystyrene, even though it is technically a closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam.

Many use the trademarked term generically, although it is a different material from the extruded Polystyrene used for Styrofoam insulation.

Either way, the focus of this guide is expanded Polystyrene (EPS), which you are likely to be familiar with as end caps or pads used in protective packaging applications.

Why is Polystyrene bad?

A lack of recycling infrastructure and investment

Although you can recycle expanded Polystyrene, the main reason it is perceived as bad is that there are significant barriers to doing so.

For example, UK kerbside recycling programmes do not accept EPS. Due to the low density of the material, it is also uneconomical to collect (i.e. it takes a lot of space in transit). As a result, there is little investment in processing and recycling expanded Polystyrene.

As a result, the material typically ends up in general waste bins, which then enter landfills.

New York bans polystyrene
New York is one of more than 70 cities to have banned the use / sale of polystyrene packaging (including both food containers and loose fill items)

In perhaps the highest profile incident, New York City decided, along with over 70 other cities, to ban the manufacture, processing, and selling of Expanded Polystyrene foam (EPS) and Polystyrene loose-fill packaging from 1 July 2015. It cited the material as causing environmental harm.

Around 100 tonnes of expanded Polystyrene are recycled each year in the UK, with the reclaimed material becoming products such as clothes hangers, toys and plant pots. Yet the fact so much ends up in landfills – and the consumer backlash against it – means alternatives are fast growing in popularity.


Alternatives to expanded polystyrene packaging

So, what are the alternative options to polystyrene packaging? And are any of these really better for the environment?

Well, there are several alternative materials that you can consider when looking at your protective packaging requirements.

Alternatives to expended polystyrene packaging include:

  • Other polymer-based foams.
  • Recycled foam.
  • Wood/cellulose-based foams.
  • Korrvu.
  • Corrispring.
  • Corrugated fittings.
  • Paper void fill.

Standard foam packaging

Enhanced protection during transit/handling

One of the main alternatives to Polystyrene is other polymer-based foam packaging. Packaging manufacturers use materials such as Stratocell and Ethafoam to create end caps, pads, blocks, trays, and custom-designed items.

Foam packaging inserts usually provide much higher levels of protection than expanded Polystyrene. They are effective across multiple drops, impacts, or instances of mishandling. This performance helps to protect items during transit, in turn minimising the amount of (damaged) goods returned and sent to landfill.

Their properties also allow for using much less material than Polystyrene and being considerably less bulky. The result is smaller outer containers, improved transport efficiency, and reduced CO2 emissions.

This benefit means foam packaging such as Stratocell and Ethafoam has considerably less environmental impact than Polystyrene.

However, these foams, whilst recyclable, suffer from some of the same problems as Polystyrene. Most significantly, they are not collected in kerbside schemes and require specialist recycling facilities.

Foam packaging products
Using foam packaging (if done correctly) can actually be a sustainable option

Recycled foam packaging

More environmentally friendly foam option

Using recycled foam can lessen a business’s impact on the environment.

Materials such as Stratocell R (recycled) and Ethafoam HRC (high recycled content) use at least 65% recycled plastics. The recycled content does not affect their structure or performance when compared with standard foam end caps and packaging, and it is possible to recycle them again at the end of their useful life.

All of the benefits of standard foams, therefore, still apply, including minimal material use. They are also not subject to the UK Plastic Packaging Tax (PPT) introduced in April 2022.

However, they also share the same drawbacks, including the difficulty of recycling.

Wood foam

Cellulose-based foam packaging

There are now several foams available manufactured using natural materials. One of these, Fibrease, is created using cellulose fibres from trees.

This wood foam packaging can provide performance similar to some polymer-based foams but with the added benefit that it is considerably easier to recycle. Consumers can place both the wood foam and the outer cardboard packaging into kerbside collection for paper.

This ease of recycling not only helps minimise environmental harm but also makes life considerably easier for your customers. Both these points can also have a significant positive impact on how consumers perceive your brand and business.

Fibrease wood foam
Fibrease is a a packaging foam made from wood (cellulose fibres).


Innovative alternative to traditional inserts

Korrvu is a type of packaging that, whilst not eliminating plastics, certainly reduces it.

The system works by suspending or retaining the items between two sheets of thin plastic within the outer packaging. The design prevents damage caused by any items colliding with the walls of the outer container or each other.

When the package arrives with the consumer, they can place the whole insert (film and paper elements) into kerbside paper collections. The recycling process separates the plastic component in a similar manner to plastic tape affixed to cardboard boxes.

The other benefit of this form of packaging is that it will again reduce the overall volume of the outer packaging, particularly when compared with Polystyrene, which can help improve transit efficiency and emissions. It is also more flexible in the types and sizes of products it can accommodate (with foam end caps being tailored to a single or limited range of items).

korrvu suspension packaging
Korrvu is a form of packaging that, whilst still using some plastic, is much easier for end users to recycle


Corrugated cardboard cushioning

The success of the Blue Planet series led many businesses to look at ways to significantly reduce or even eliminate plastics from their packaging. One of the ways that many sought to do this was to move to biodegradable materials.

As a result, a specialist cardboard foam alternative – Corrispring – was developed.

Corrispring is effectively a concertina of corrugated cardboard that acts to absorb shock during mishandling. And, whilst the performance levels are less than foam packaging, they can be suitable for various applications. The only other downside is the increased bulk of the packs that use them, meaning less efficient use of space during transit).

The key benefit of Corrispring, however, is the material used in its manufacture is not only biodegradable but also fully and widely recycled (including in kerbside recycling boxes).

Corrispring is an alternative to foam cushion packaging that uses corrugated cardboard

Corrugated fittings

Custom designed cradles and inserts

Another option similar to Corrispring is the use of cardboard fittings.

With a lot of transit damage caused by the movement of items within the container, fixing contents within a fitting can significantly minimise instances of this type of damage. This approach is similar to how Korrvu packaging works.

The main advantage, when compared with Korrvu, is that the fittings are entirely made from cardboard, allowing the whole pack to be quickly and easily recycled. The main drawback, however, is that, as the insert is tailored to a specific product, packing staff require a different fitting for each individual item.

However, for high volume, single trip requirements, they can be extremely beneficial in terms of costs and lessening environmental impact.

Paper void fill

Basic option suited to eCommerce

Many overlook the use of Polystyrene for void fill. Often referred to as peanuts, noodles or simply loose fill, expanded Polystyrene of this nature is not only bad for the environment but a nightmare for the consumer to dispose of, too.

An alternative to simply fill excess space within an outer carton is to use paper void fill.

Whilst this provides only moderate transit protection, it does prevent items from moving around and colliding with each other during normal handling operations, making it a suitable option for most standard applications (i.e. if the contents are not particularly valuable, delicate or are already in primary packaging).

It is also readily recycled in standard kerbside recycling.

Paper void fill
Paper void fill can be a suitable option if the products being shipped vary in size / quantity etc.


Are you still using Polystyrene?

If you are, then now is probably the time to switch.

As detailed above, there is now a range of much more environmentally friendly polystyrene alternatives, with an option to suit most applications, products, and budgets.

If you need advice on the best solution for your business moving forward or would like a quote on eco-friendly alternative packaging, please speak with one of our packaging experts.

Further Reading...

About the Author

Ian Heskins

Ian Heskins

Business Development Director | GWP Group

Ian is one of the founding Directors of GWP, using his broad knowledge acquired over more than 30 years to oversee new business strategy [Read full bio…]

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