top of page

The Flat Cap on ... Polystyrene

Today The Flat Cap has been looking at polystyrene and paid a visit to a local kebab shop to look at their polystyrene trays and find out more about this amazing and versatile chemical compound.

According to a shop assistant called Daniel (who was working behind the counter on some government job scheme to get work experience) the great thing about polystyrene is that it comes in lots of different forms and can be made into lots of different things. Ok, some of the things like insulation sheets seem quite boring, whist other items like surf boards can be proper exciting. Having been a student before becoming one of the long term unemployed Daniel knew a lot about takeaway food and he told The Flat Cap that the trays you get your chips and gravy in are made from polystyrene; the same with coffee cups, egg boxes, disposable plates and cutlery. When The Flat Cap pointed out that polystyrene took hundreds of years to bio-degrade and wasn’t really that helpful to the environment he was screamed at by the proprietor and manhandled out of the shop. The Flat Cap did not understand all of the screaming and thinks the shop owner’s first language might not be English.

The Flat Cap on Polystyrene

In the same way that The Flat Cap mistook doner kebab for real food animals routinely mistake polystyrene foam for food, and it is now a major component of plastic debris in the ocean. Polystyrene foam blows in the wind and floats on water, and is abundant in the outdoor environment. It can be lethal to any bird or sea creature that swallows it in significant quantities. Unfortunately polystyrene is a fairly new compound and wasn’t available until the 1930’s onwards. Had it been invented a couple of hundred years ago all Captain Ahab would have need to do would have been to get Moby Dick to eat a large number of discarded coffee cups and takeaway trays. Unfortunately for Ahab he preferred a dodgy boat and a few harpoons and consequently came off second best.

Perhaps the most famous polystyrene was the musician, singer-songwriter Poly Styrene who went on to form the punk rock band X-Ray Spex. Although her real name was Marianne this didn’t sound like a punk icon type of name so she changed it. Lots of musicians do things like change their names, and nobody seems to know why. Then years later they either change back to their real name or try to conform by going on chat shows, writing books, performing comeback tours or advertising things like fizzy drinks, car insurance and butter. The best way for a pop icon to become respectable is to accept an MBE or a knighthood, but only if you’re very wealthy and have given up being rebellious. Nowadays those pop stars who still want to offend mainstream society have their photograph taken with politicians, sign up for tax avoidance schemes, or get out of paying tax completely by living abroad.

The Flat Cap spoke to a chemistry student called Pete and he was able to provide some amazing polystyrene related facts (although technically he cheated with the baked beans fact, which has nothing to do with polystyrene):

  • The beans in bean bags aren’t like the beans you get in tins of beans but are actually polystyrene balls

  • Most tinned baked beans are haricot beans

  • Polystyrene can be both expanded or extruded but when pressed further Pete didn’t really know what this meant and admitted that he’d missed rather a lot of lectures lately

  • Polystyrene can be made into sheets, but only rigid sheets. This means that you can’t put them on your bed to keep warm as they would just break up into lots of pieces and then make a right mess

  • Polystyrene sheets can keep you warm, but only if they’re used to insulate your house

  • You can buy polystyrene sheets from DIY stores like B&Q, where invariably the sales staff are older and more patient, and explain things that other older people can understand without getting too technical or referring to the internet / social media

  • You can also buy polystyrene ceiling tiles, but they don’t have the same visual impact as say the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, or even regular lining paper come to think of it

  • Polystyrene foam block can be used for sculpting, this is probably how Henry Moore and Antony Gormley got started

  • You can buy polystyrene eggs off the internet and decorate all sorts of things with them – very popular around Easter

  • The coving in Pete’s student flat is made from polystyrene

bottom of page