Today is America Recycles Day, which you can learn more about recycling here. We wanted to take this opportunity to learn something cool about one of the most heinous landfill residents: styrofoam. This lightweight convenient insulating material has found many uses, from takeout containers to disposable coolers. Unfortunately, to go along with all of its good qualities, it has one bad one: it doesn’t degrade naturally. This means that when it goes in the trash, it will stay there for a very long time. In addition, styrofoam is about 95% air, each pound that is disposed of will be taking up a lot of space–possibly up to 30% of the total volume–in our garbage for the foreseeable future.
Fortunately, not everyone is resigned to this fate. Instead, people have been trying to come up with a better way to deal with this. One of these ways uses acetone. Acetone is an organic molecule made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and is the simplest member of the ketone family. On the right is a picture of acetone at the atomic level.
Most of the uses of acetone revolve around a single property: it is an excellent solvent. This means that it does a great job of dissolving many different kinds of molecules, making it useful as a cleaning agent in chemistry labs and a remover of nail polish.
Styrofoam is made of polystyrene, which in itself means a chain of styrene. Styrene is a relatively simple organic molecule that can easily bind with itself. When it comes in contact with acetone, the polystyrene chains fall apart. However, the acetone doesn’t actually dissolve the styrene molecules. If it did, all of the styrofoam would disappear into the acetone, but instead we end up with this.
Depending on your point of view, this probably looks like some combination of gross, scientific, and fun. Additionally, it is also useful. Using solvents like acetone to break down styrofoam can repurpose it to being a rather useful adhesive. Being able to use styrofoam as a glue is a terrific alternative to having it fill up or landfills.
Please don’t rush out and try to do this on your own, as acetone is dangerous and also not the right chemical to do this properly. To learn more about this method go here.