Disappearing Styrofoam Cup - Cover Image

Vanishing Styrofoam Cups

Styrofoam vanishes like magic... or maybe not.

Styrofoam is one of the most complex and difficult materials on earth when it comes to decomposition. But, believe it or not, there is a way to make an entire cup of styrofoam vanish in a matter of seconds. It doesn’t involve fire, so there’s no acrid smoke released, either. It’s not actual magic, but knowing the science behind what takes place is pretty darn awesome.

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Experiment Materials

  • Acetone*
  • Styrofoam Cup
  • Pie Plate
  • Adult Supervision
  • *Use acetone in a well ventilated area or outdoors!

Experiment Videos

Experiment

1

In a well ventilated area, cover the bottom of the pie plate with a thin layer of acetone.

Disappearing Styrofoam Cup - Step 2

2

Carefully place the styrofoam cup into the center of the pie plate.

Disappearing Styrofoam Cup - Cover Image

3

Stand back and watch as the cup disappears!

How Does It Work

Styrofoam is actually a common name for a material called polystyrene, which is a polymer made up of a long chain of molecules.  The acetone is a solvent that easily breaks down the polystyrene, releasing the little air pockets trapped inside and leaving very little residue at the end. In other words, the polystyrene dissolves in the acetone.

As a science teacher, science enthusiast, or an environmentalist, you are aware of the bad effects that styrofoam has on our environment and the space that it takes up in landfills. So why not just use acetone to dissolve waste polystyrene? Problem solved, right? Not quite, since the acetone presents its own environmental and energy consumption issues.

Take It Further

Take this experiment to the next level by trying the additional tricks  in Vanishing Peanuts in Steve Spangler’s book Fire Bubbles & Exploding Toothpaste.

Safety Information

WARNING: Please follow all of the manufacturer’s safety precautions listed on the container of acetone. This solvent is very flammable. Keep away from all flames. 

Real-World Application

Currently about 200 million cubic feet per year of polystyrene “loose fill” (packaging material) is used in the United States. Although some companies try and reuse the packing material, most of the polystyrene loose fill is disposed of in a landfill. As students of science, we need to carefully examine such products and ask these questions: How is the material made and what happens to it after it is used? One of the properties of polystyrene loose fill is that it does not compress easily. While this is beneficial when trying to protect something from being crushed or broken, it poses a problem when trying to dispose of it in a landfill. As a result, environmentally conscious companies sought a solution to these problems. One such solution is called Eco-Foam loose fill. It provides the ease of use and cushioning of polystyrene, but gives us many other re-use or disposal options for the future. It readily decomposes in water and can be re-used for your own packages, or you can dispose of it by putting it in your compost pile, watering it into your lawn, or washing it down the sink.

Eco-Foam is made almost entirely from an annually renewable resource… corn! The remaining ingredient is a water-soluble organic polymer called “polyvinyl alcohol.” This organic polymer is made from carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen… the building blocks of life. When polyvinyl alcohol is exposed to water, naturally occurring bacteria feed on this organic polymer. Under wet conditions, the bacteria will use the starch (which is also composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen) and polyvinyl alcohol as food to begin the cycle of life again.

Many people feel that the answer to our solid waste problem is recycling. While this method will go a long way to help our solid waste problems, it is not the whole solution. One good suggestion is to use as little of the material as possible. Secondly, it makes sense to use a natural product (instead of a synthetic product) that will break down when we are finished using it. We must remember how to re-use!