Innovation That Matters

Two versions of the new fibre insulation mats – the one on the left is based on paper, the one on the right based on cellulose | Photo source TU Dresden

Polystyrene foam replacement solves recycling issues


Researchers have developed a recyclable insulating material that could be used as a replacement for non-biodegradable polystyrene

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Spotted: Polystyrene, often referred to by the brand name Styrofoam, is both non-biodegradable and difficult to recycle. Although many companies have stopped using it in packaging, its lightweight and insulating properties mean that it is still commonly used in shipping and for storing items that need to be kept cold. Now, researchers at the Institute of Natural Products Engineering at TU Dresden have developed an insulating material made from recycled paper that has similar insulating properties.

The researchers used paper slated for recycling, first shredding it and then converting the shredded paper into a slurry. By using a special drying process, they created fibre mats with a low density but with very small gaps between the fibres – similar to Styrofoam. Tests indicated that the new material had low thermal conductivity and could be used as a replacement for polystyrene. 

Thomas Schrinner, project coordinator at the Chair of Wood Technology and Fiber Materials Engineering, added that “Due to the low thermal conductivity and higher heat storage capacity of cellulose, the insulating properties of the sustainable fibre mats even surpass those of most other materials.” Partner easy2cool GmbH has already tested the new product and found that it works as a solution in mail order shipping. 

Although it is necessary to wrap the new insulation in film to prevent direct contact with food, the total amount of non-recyclable elements is still much lower than using polystyrene. Schrinner says that “At seven percent, the proportion of film in the overall system is so low that the shipping packaging can be fed into the paper for recycling cycle without hesitation. Nevertheless, film wrapping is only an interim solution. We have already started developing sustainable alternatives, such as cellulose-based barrier layers.”

Developing a polystyrene substitute is just the latest effort in the global drive to find replacement materials for non-biodegradable plastics and foam. In the past, we have seen a huge variety of these plastic substitutes, including skis made from algae and fast shields made from food waste. We have no doubt that many more are yet to come.

Written By: Lisa Magloff

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