Foam formation

Many foam packing materials are made from petroleum mined from geological formations in the earth’s surface and refined into polystyrene. These foam pieces continue to be a central material of global shipping and trade. Though biodegradable alternatives have existed for decades, polystyrene foam fills landfills wherever goods reach their destination and don’t fully break down within a human’s lifetime, forming technofossils or geologic layers of human technological activity. Condensing them with food-grade orange oil reduces them to oily layers, producing a miniature geological and material record of consumption activity and supply chains that feed it. The material that forms from melting can also be reused as glue, molding putty, or to make fine plastic threads, depending on the ratio of oil to peanuts dissolved. 

Materials: Polystyrene, food grade orange oil, sealed glass jar

Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Waters, C. N., Barnosky, A. D., & Haff, P. (2014). The technofossil record of humans. The Anthropocene Review1(1), 34-43.Mitman, G., Armiero, M., & Emmett, R. (Eds.). (2018).

Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene. University of Chicago Press.

smudge studio (2010). Geologic Time Viewer [interactive graphic]. Humanities and Digital Visual Interpretations, MIT, Cambridge, MA.


Step 1: Gathering

Find a transparent glass jar with a metal lid that seals completely. Recycling bins and empty containers left on supply closet shelves are great places to look, but take appropriate precautions by reading container labels and wearing skin, eye, and respiratory protection when digging through waste and cleaning your found jar. Gather packing peanuts from your fabrication lab or personal use and set them aside, along with a small bottle of food grade citrus oil, called limonene; limonene is available at many health food stores, baking suppliers, and online. While it is possible to distill and make your own, it is typically made as a byproduct of agriculture, requiring distillation equipment and a large quantity of leftover citrus tissues. If you’re interested in trying to make limonene as well, check out these instructions.

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Step 2: Melting

Pour a layer of food grade orange oil (limonene) into the bottom of the jar. A little goes a long way — a single tablespoon of limonene can break down a small box of packing peanuts. Drop in enough foam to cover the oil layer. When those have dissolved, add another layer until you have reduced them all to an oily sludge in the jar. You can dissolve them faster by stirring or shaking the mixture, and adjust the thickness and consistency by adding more or less limonene. To thicken the mixture, evaporate some of the limonene by leaving the lid off and set it in a warm, well ventilated space. Repeat with new layers of limonene and peanuts until you’ve dissolved all peanuts on hand and seal the jar. If melted without stirring, they will dissolve and settle in colored layers, a formation evoking the earth’s layers of technofossils.

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Step 3: Re-making technofossils

As technology design practitioners we leave behind such technofossils, lasting geological transformations and remainders of our production activities created from finite natural resources. You can stir and manipulate the packing peanut mixture to form other patterns besides layers, or embed objects in it. Evaporating some of the limonene will make the mixture more like a putty that can be molded and formed, or left runny it can be pulled and spun into fine, sticky threads.

What other ways can you imagine giving this technofossil formation new life, shifting where and with whom it settles?

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