EPS, XPS, Styropor, Styrofoam? Keep your plastics straight, please! 

Euro­pean media and politi­cians seem hope­less­ly con­fused when it comes to EPS.

Brus­sels —Expand­ed poly­styrene, or EPS, accounts for about 3% of all of all plas­tic sold in Europe. But you would nev­er guess that from read­ing many media or pol­i­cy reports.

In Ger­many, head­lines using the EPS brand name Sty­ro­por blare that “One-way Sty­ro­por pack­ag­ing will dis­ap­pear” and Focus mag­a­zine report­ed that “Sty­ro­por gro­cery and drink con­tain­ers are banned”. Nev­er mind that there are hard­ly any such EPS pack­ages on the mar­ket in Ger­many or, for that mat­ter, through­out most of Europe!

Ger­man jour­nal­ists have also ref­ered to “Sty­ro­por wrap­pers” while French leg­is­la­tion refers to “EPS bot­tles” – nei­ther of which exist.

Sin­gle-Use Plas­tics confusion

EPS, Styropor—also known as poli­s­tiro­lo, poly­styrene expan­sé, Air­pop and Flamin­go  in oth­er countries—has become the sub­ject of wide­spread con­fu­sion in Euro­pean media and halls of pow­er. The rea­son? The entry into force on the 3rd of July of the EU’s Sin­gle Use Plas­tics Direc­tive, which bans things like plas­tic straws and fast food containers.

The fact is that the pack­ag­ing that’s about to dis­ap­pear in the EU is almost nev­er EPS. The Sin­gle-Use Plas­tics Direc­tive does restricts uses of lots of plas­tic items—but hard­ly any EPS, and cer­tain­ly not EPS pack­ag­ing in general–despite what the head­lines might say. EPS use has not been banned for its most com­mon and essen­tial uses: pro­tect­ing whole­sale food ship­ments of fresh fruit and veg­eta­bles, elec­tron­ics and elec­tri­cal equip­ment, white goods or COVID-19 vac­cine ship­ments. That would be an own goal, would­n’t it?

It’s also impos­si­ble to imag­ine EPS wrap­pers because EPS is rigid and does not bend around a bot­tle. And EPS bot­tles? No one has ever actu­al­ly seen one.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, pub­lic con­fu­sion over what EPS is or isn’t has real con­se­quences. Law­mak­ers from Brus­sels to Paris have made ref­er­ences to EPS in legal texts when they almost cer­tain­ly intend­ed to tar­get some­thing else, like clamshell fast food con­tain­ers (which are XPS–see below). This demon­strates a mis­un­der­stand­ing of the essen­tial uses of EPS in our lives. And in an era where social media can make or break rep­u­ta­tions, hav­ing peo­ple malign the wrong plas­tic risks pun­ish­ing the wrong prod­ucts and the entire econ­o­my around them.

In the inter­est of con­tribut­ing to the glob­al fight against dis­in­for­ma­tion, here’s Smart Pack­ag­ing Europe’s primer on what EPS is and isn’t.

EPS or not EPS? 


  1. “Expand­ed poly­styrene straws, Q‑tips, cof­fee cups, stir­rers, cut­lery and plates and bowls”? A DPA report in April said they were all about to be banned. The trou­ble is hard­ly any of these items is actu­al­ly made of EPS—and EPS in gen­er­al isn’t about to be banned. Straws, cot­ton bud sticks, bev­er­age stir­rers and cut­lery are made out of oth­er kinds of rigid, plas­tics… Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the mis­in­for­ma­tion has already been picked up 6,540 times (as of 23 June 2021) and con­tin­ues to cir­cu­late, as in this recent exam­ple in a local Ger­man press agency.
  2. EPS is com­posed of 98% air and just 2% poly­styrene. If a plas­tic does not con­tain air and wraps or folds with­out break­ing, it’s not EPS. Some Ger­man jour­nal­ists have referred to Sty­ro­por wrap­pers and things like yogurt cups. Uh, that’s not EPS folks. (Like­wise, when British come­di­an Gra­ham Nor­ton mocked the “Sty­ro­foam hand” used as a prop by Ger­man singer Jen­drik Sig­wart in this year’s Euro­vi­sion song con­test, he was con­fus­ing his plas­tics because XPS doesn’t bend like that, either.) One rea­son EPS is com­mon­ly used in spe­cif­ic pack­ag­ing appli­ca­tions is that it does not bend much but absorbs shocks and insu­lates things effec­tive­ly, and using a min­i­mum of resources.
  3. EPS is not XPS. EPS is expand­ed It’s a foamed plas­tic that is most­ly used in build­ing insu­la­tion, pack­ag­ing and per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment such as bicy­cle hel­mets. XPS is extrud­ed poly­styrene, and also has a vari­ety of uses. Each has prop­er­ties that makes it the best and most sus­tain­able mate­r­i­al for the appli­ca­tions where it is com­mon­ly used. How­ev­er, they are not the same and are pro­duced in a dif­fer­ent process. If you look just a lit­tle clos­er, you can tell them apart: For the pro­duc­tion of EPS, gran­u­late is filled into a mould and foamed in hot steam. The par­ti­cles of the gran­u­late stick togeth­er, but usu­al­ly do not com­plete­ly fuse with one anoth­er. The spher­i­cal, foamed gran­u­late is often recog­nis­able in the end prod­uct and some­times even a sin­gle grain can be sep­a­rat­ed. XPS has a fin­er and denser foam structure.
  4. Sty­ro­por is not Sty­ro­foamdespite what Google Trans­late says! For one thing, Sty­ro­por is a reg­is­tered trade­mark of Ger­man chem­i­cal group BASF AG and is EPS, while Sty­ro­foam is a reg­is­tered trade­mark of the Dow Chem­i­cal Com­pa­ny and is XPS. Sor­ry, Google, but trans­lat­ing Sty­ro­por in Ger­man into Sty­ro­foam in Eng­lish is like call­ing a Coke a Pep­si or mix­ing up Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel with U.S. Pres­i­dent Joe Biden. (Smart Pack­ag­ing Europe has already asked Google to cor­rect this mis­trans­la­tion three times, so far with­out success.)
  5. If it’s sus­pend­ed in the sea, it’s not EPS. It’s pret­ty sim­ple: EPS floats, so if you find plas­tic sus­pend­ed in the water col­umn or on the sea bed, it’s almost cer­tain­ly not EPS. While we don’t want any lit­ter (plas­tic or oth­er mate­ri­als), any­where in the envi­ron­ment, the dis­tinc­tion is cru­cial because only 15% of marine debris floats on the sea sur­face; anoth­er 15% remains in the water col­umn, and 70% rests on the seabed – and gen­er­al­ly, EPS can­not be any part of the 85% that’s below the surface.
  6. EPS bot­tle? Prob­a­bly not. EPS can pro­tect wine bot­tles and beer bot­tles and oth­er bot­tles from break­age, mind you, but if you’re look­ing at a clear plas­tic bot­tle that’s prob­a­bly PET, which stands for poly­eth­yl­ene tereph­tha­late. Not at all the same thing.
  7. EPS is not tox­ic. EPS has been per­mis­si­ble as a food con­tact mate­r­i­al and safe­ly and wide­ly used for the trans­porta­tion of fresh fish, fruits and veg­eta­bles from farms to mar­kets world-wide for decades. Dur­ing all those years, its safe­ty has been exten­sive­ly stud­ied and con­firmed mul­ti­ple times, includ­ing by EU author­i­ties. The start­ing sub­stance, styrene, by itself is haz­ardous, but when it is chem­i­cal­ly trans­formed into the plas­tic poly­styrene, which is then trans­formed into expand­ed poly­styrene, it is non-tox­ic . It’s like the dif­fer­ence between CO (car­bon monox­ide, which is poi­so­nous) and CO2 (car­bon diox­ide, which we breathe out). A small chem­i­cal dif­fer­ence can make a big dif­fer­ence in the way some­thing behaves.

If you see any oth­er good exam­ples of EPS con­fu­sion, please let us know! We’ll be glad to add it to the col­lec­tion and set peo­ple straight.


Vaccine-Packaging-Schaumplast WHY-EPS_OPENER BewiSynbraVegetables-edit About-Us
Not banned: Com­mon uses of expand­ed poly­styrene (EPS).
AuthorBrandon Mitchener
Date24 June 2021