Is Styrofoam Recyclable?

Styrofoam has become a regular part of our day to day life – whether it’s in the form of peanuts, cups, or packaging. While some might not think too much about it, others wonder: Is Styrofoam recyclable? And if so, what’s the best course of action?

Defining the term

Its real name is Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) foam, but most people know it by Styrofoam, a brand name. It’s basically a form of polystyrene plastic usually coded as #6 plastic. Styrofoam’s uses are varied, including packing, food trays, coffee cups, plates, and even manufacturing car parts.

Facts about Styrofoam

Now that we know that Styrofoam is, in fact, expanded polystyrene, let’s check out some interesting facts about it.

  • Just because a Styrofoam piece comes with a recycling symbol on it, it doesn’t automatically mean it is.
  • Polystyrene makes up for about five percent of a foam package the rest is air.
  • There are many pros to using Styrofoam, including its insulating ability that keeps food warm. It is also high in durability, light weight, and strong, making it an ideal packaging material.
  • However, polystyrene can be toxic. Benzene, a carcinogenic chemical, is used in the production process (it’s made from petroleum). Therefore, it is inevitable that food coming in direct contact with the Styrofoam packaging would be affected.
  • The use of Styrofoam has been banned in more than 20 cities in the United States.
  • Styrofoam is almost not at all biodegradable. Without external help, Styrofoam can last for centuries.
  • It poses a real danger to animals. When ingested, it can block their digestive tracts, causing death.
  • Disposing of Styrofoam can be space-consuming. Estimations show that almost thirty percent of landfills worldwide are filled with it. This percentage adds to the problem of disposing Styrofoam.
  • styrofoam-cups

Types of Polystyrene Foam #6

There are four types of #6 coded plastic, all of whom are a big part of our everyday lives. What are they and, most importantly, how can we dispose of them as eco-friendly as possible?

1. Foam cups and food service items

Foam food service containers include clamshell containers, drink cups, and food trays. All of these products must be in recyclable condition, which means they must be wiped or rinsed before looking for recycling factories that accept foam items.

In some communities, recycling is offered curbside. If you don’t have that option, contact some restaurants or other businesses that might have programs for collecting foam cups for recycling.

2. Foam packing peanuts

While packaging peanuts can be made with a variety of materials, a lot of them carry the #6 recycling symbol. If you have those, make sure you don’t combine them with non-EPS packing peanuts. Otherwise, you won’t be able to use them for foam recycling.

How to recycle foam packing peanuts? Reuse them or contact local pack and ship stores which accept foam packing peanuts free of charge.

styrofoam-peanuts

3. Foam packaging

We often get furniture, electronics, and other fragile items shipped in EPS packaging. Because of its flexibility, the rigid lightweight foam is usually molded to offer both protection and insulation.

EPS packaging can only be recycled in special units that offer foam #6 recycling. You can also try mailing the lightweight materials to a local or regional center for recycling.

How Styrofoam is recycled

As far as the process of recycling Styrofoam goes, it’s not so complicated. The problem with it, however, is that it requires special machinery, which means that you won’t be able to just recycle it anywhere. This is the step-by-step process that transforms used foam into new EPS products.

  1. The collected EPS foam is put onto conveyor belts that transport it into a shredding machine.
  2. The resulting EPS foam – now shredded – is then transferred to a plastic extruder. There, heat and pressure are used to melt the EPS foam.
  3. Consequently, the melted EPS foam come out through a small outlet at the end of the extruder, eventually solidifying into a solid shape.
  4. This form of EPS can then be transported with ease to factories that remold it – using heat and pressure – into new EPS products.

The problem with recycling Styrofoam

So, even though most forms of Styrofoam are recyclable, we still have a problem on our hands. There aren’t many facilities that collect this type of material for recycling. Why? The recycling process needs to be both feasible and cost-effective, which can only happen with large amounts of material.

  • It is difficult for facilities to manage Styrofoam because it is so light and bulky. Given that recycling is valued by the ton, that’s a problem.
  • Just like plastic bags, Styrofoam takes a long time to decompose naturally, which makes it a permanent resident of landfills around the world.
  • Commercial Styrofoam waste can sometimes be burned in incinerators, but that is also a problem. When burned, foam is very toxic – and it doesn’t produce a lot of energy from combustion.
  • There are a few places that recycle Styrofoam, but they are too few for the millions of foam cups that are disposed of in landfills each year in the U.S.

polystyrene-landfill

So: Is Styrofoam recyclable?

Bottom line is that we have yet to find a good disposal method for Styrofoam. While it helps us immensely, its ecological footprint is something to be considered, as well.

What can you do with your pieces of Styrofoam? While there is no clear answer, there are some options: Give it away, reuse it, or hoard it till you can open your own Styrofoam recycling center. If you can’t reuse it yourself or you have no-one to give it away to, your creativity will be tested.

One of the solutions for the ever-growing piles of used Styrofoam products is trying to reduce our consumption of Styrofoam in the first place. When you purchase a product, ask about how it’s packaged, and think about what you will do with the packaging afterwards.

However, if we are to answer the question in the title, then, yes, Styrofoam can be recycled. You should stop and think before you chuck your foam packaging in the garbage! You definitely have other options!

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William E. Eubanks
 

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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