This 'Nanowood' Is The Biodegradable Alternative To Styrofoam We Need

Styrofoam can be very convenient, but it's a burden on the environment and it's hard to recycle. One of the most promising alternatives is nanowood, which retains a lot of properties but is stronger and biodegradable.


May 23 2019, Updated 5:47 a.m. ET

Styrofoam is incredibly cheap and provides many uses like holding hot drinks and packing larger electronics for shipment. However, the convenience is costly when it comes to the environment, and it’s an incredible nightmare when it comes to recycling it. A new option called “nanowood” hopes to provide benefits similar to styrofoam, with the plus of being biodegradable.

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For the most part, local recycling bins do not accept foamed polystyrene, or Styrofoam. Some variations of it can be accepted or there will be specific bins, but usually all food containers and cups are not accepted due to contamination. In the recycling process, accidentally burning polystyrene gives of styrene gas, which is a toxic chemical.

While it can be convenient for food storage and keeping liquid hot or cold, there’s been links that direct contact with what we consume could be hazardous. It’s certainly dangerous for the environment, where it never breaks down and animal wildlife can suffer if they accidentally try to ingest the material.

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This is where a new material with the same convenience was developed at the University of Maryland. Nanowood is created from extra wood that’s mixed with cheap chemicals like sodium hydroxide and hydrogen peroxide. These chemicals take out the cell walls and leaves nanofibers of cellulose, or nanowood.

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Naturally, the nanowood fibers keeps heat trapped on either side, meaning it’s a great insulation source. The product is lightweight and renewable since it comes from trees. It also creates a very strong and sturdy product and it’s biodegradable, something that’s different from traditional polystyrene.

According to New Scientist, laboratory tests revealed that a nanowood piece measured at close to six inches long and around three-fourths of an inch thick was able to withstand heat on the same level as polystyrene. While this is a pretty small sample, scientists believe this could be scaled up to major ideas, like insulating buildings and vehicles.

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“This work shows that with proper treatment, wood can become stronger and more insulating than commonly used insulation, such as fiberglass for houses, with the added benefits that it is non-toxic and sustainable,” Jeff Youngblood, a scientist from Purdue University who studies products made from wood, told New Scientist.

Styrofoam continues to be at least partially banned in a number of United States cities. New York, California, and Oregon have various cities that have made the move while others like Seattle and Washington, DC, that have made sustainable improvements have done the same. Environmental costs and health hazards outweigh the positives of polystyrene, and nanowood could be the best alternative for it.

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