Published October 2019
Expanded polystyrene (EPS2) is a rigid cellular plastic originally invented in Germany by BASF in 1950. EPS is 98% air and the rest is made from tiny, spherical EPS beads0themselves made only of carbon and hydrogen. EPS is among the largest commodity polymers produced in the world and is the second-largest styrene derivative, after polystyrene. It is a solid foam with a unique combination of characteristics, such as lightness, insulation properties, durability, and excellent processability. EPS is used in many applications, such as thermal insulation board in buildings, packaging, cushioning of valuable goods, and food packaging.
Expandable polystyrene is a bead that can be produced directly in a one-step process or produced indirectly via polystyrene beads in a two-step process. In the two-step process, EPS beads are produced from polystyrene beads made in the suspension process, which are impregnated under heat and pressure with a light hydrocarbon such as pentane. The light hydrocarbon will expand the polymer when reheated.
Building and construction is the largest demand segment, accounting for over half of global EPS demand in 2019. However, this application no longer leads the EPS industry from a growth perspective due to stagnant demand in Northeast Asia and Western Europe, coupled with an offset in stronger packaging growth. China’s construction industry downturn, along with declining insulation demand, have been significant factors leading to the overall weakening of global EPS demand into the building and construction markets. Another threat that could potentially affect the future outlook is that the use of glass in China’s construction industry appears to be rising due to attempts at “going green” in building and construction, which entails a reduction in the use of electricity. Since the usage of glass would allow more sunlight into buildings, concrete (EPS insulation) could potentially face future substitution. North America has shown some of the strongest growth in these markets; however, the region accounts for a relatively minor percentage of overall global demand.
EPS is commonly used for building and construction in molded sheets for building insulation, which are often packaged as rigid panels in both residential and commercial construction. In recent years, geofoam projects have also contributed to global EPS demand growth. Geofoam is used to provide a lightweight void fill below a highway, bridge approach, embankment, or parking lot. Over the next five years, global EPS demand for building and construction is projected to increase at a moderate rate.
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