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Material Highlight: Cruz Foam Aims To Replace Styrofoam With Biodegradable Alternative

by Rudy Sanchez on 05/24/2021 | 2 Minute Read

Polystyrene is a plastic that gets used in a variety of applications. Better known by its trade name “styrofoam,” this resin can be used as a solid or foamed, creating a light material capable of cushioning products as packing peanuts, formed into a surfboard, a disposable razor blade, or DVD tray. 

However, just like other kinds of synthetic plastics, it sucks for the environment. When turned into foam, the bulky pieces of plastic float around waterways and wash up onto shores as non-biodegradable trash, slowly leeching microscopic pieces of plastic into the environment for hundreds of years.

Cruz Foam co-founder and CEO John Felts, an alumnus of UC Santa Cruz, loves surfing but realized that the material used to catch a wave was also causing it harm. That's because surfboards are now primarily made from two materials—polyurethane and expanded polystyrene (EPS). Both are lightweight, strong, and buoyant, all desirable qualities for surfboards. Polyurethane boards tend to be heavier and harder to ride for beginners than EPS versions, making them popular among surfers. But with over 2.5 million riders and over 400,000 boards produced a year, it also fuels the production and demand of styrofoam that will stick around well after its rider gets eaten up by the 50-year storm.

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It's this sobering fact, along with the “1000 Surfboard Graveyard” art installation, that motivated Felts to use his engineering education—along with some surfing knowledge—to find a suitable alternative to polystyrene foam, finding it, interestingly enough, in the ocean via seafood waste.

Using a patented process, Cruz Foam takes recycled chitin from sources like seafood processing, forming it into granules, powder, or flakes, then mixing it with an eco-friendly, water-based solution that varies depending on the desired properties of the final product. The mixture is then foamed up and washed off, allowing the chitin to form the desired structure. The foam can then get dried in a variety of forms until it reaches its final state. Cruz’s chitin-based final product can also get made in ways that rival conventional EPS.

The chitin used by Cruz Foam’s EPS replacement is material derived from the discarded shells of seafood, insects, and fungi. Chitin can be processed and formed into a biopolymer material that can get made with properties similar to conventional petroleum-based plastics. Chitin has enormous potential as a plastic alternative and could serve as a viable replacement for food-safe cling film and shopping bags, in addition to foam.

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It's still early days for Cruz Foam, but the firm has been raising money, with the latest round of funding in November 2020. Based on Cruz Foam’s website, the focus has also moved away from surfboard blanks into other applications like packaging and automotive materials, all popular use cases for expanded polystyrene foam.

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