As consumers, some packaging we simply can’t avoid, and styrofoam is one of them. So is styrofoam recyclable? The answer is a complex one but an essential piece of information to do better for our earth.
No one intentionally buys a product knowing it might be bad for the environment; however, often, producers don’t give us a choice. Styrofoam is commonly used as a protective layer or barrier for shipping practices in the form of molded pieces and “peanuts” that rattle shamelessly around cardboard boxes bound for the bin.
A recent awakening to the perils of packaging-related pollution has brought many people around to the recycling movement and, at the same time, has brought attention to how much packaging cannot easily be reincarnated as a recycled material.
In the guide below, we’ll explain what styrofoam is made of and what you should know about responsibly taking care of your packaging waste. We’ll also answer the question: Is styrofoam Recyclable?
Everything You Need To Know About Recycling Styrofoam
Styrofoam has evolved from a material invented to float docks in 1941 to a common packaging material in modern days. When DOW first bought the concept from a Swedish inventor, its main goal was to produce a buoyant, lightweight, water-resistant material that could be used in dock and insulation applications.
However, we can’t blame DOW for our Chinese takeaway boxes and dangerously crushable disposable coffee cups; this is a cousin to the trademarked Styrofoam and is generally referred to as polystyrene or EPS; expanded polystyrene. Unfortunately, they’re both tragically unequipped to break down naturally, but from here on in this guide, we’ll be referring to the typical household and packaging waste we encounter as polystyrene.
What Is PolyStyrene (EPS) Exactly
The polystyrene material we encounter in everyday products and takeaway food packaging is essentially a more versatile plastic. Plastic is made out of chemical compounds called polymers that, once created, have a virtually eternal lifetime. Styrene is a building block chemical strung together to create a plastic-derived end-product.
Fun Fact: Styrene is a naturally occurring chemical compound found in strawberries, coffee, cinnamon, and even beef.
We commonly refer to it as “styrofoam,” which is made of polystyrene that is expanded or extruded in the production process to create a foam-like material, hence “expanded polystyrene.” Because it is made up of 95% air and is incredibly lightweight, making it a logistical unicorn for manufacturers who want to save money on shipping and packaging weight. In addition, its lightweight foam nature makes it an excellent insulator.
In addition, we can’t just judge the material’s environmental impact on surface value alone. The actual process of creating polystyrene is massively impactful on the earth.
The chemicals used in the expansion process, chlorofluorocarbons, are known as ozone depleters. The base material, styrene monomers, are also known carcinogens that affect not only those working in the factories but also the earth as the packaging biodegrades and releases them into the environment.
Is There Any Way To Recycle Polystyrene?
Polystyrene packaging takes an astonishing 500 years to break down and put in a landfill. In the process, it will slowly leach toxic compounds from its chemical makeup over the course of years and bleed into our water, land, and, eventually, food systems.
So surely we humans haven’t created packaging that can’t be dealt with responsibly?
Any polystyrene producer will tell you with complete certainty: “Yes, our polystyrene is fully and easily recyclable!” However, the more accurate answer is yes. Polystyrene can be recycled but not easily. Let’s investigate.
Polystyrene Cannot Be Curb Recycled
All of those meat containers, egg cartons, and packaging peanuts cannot go out to curbside recycling. This is large because they are contaminated material with food residue and cannot safely be recycled to make a new material. In addition, a large portion of polystyrene packaging is used for food and mixed with other materials related to food packagings, such as straws and cardboard.
Because of this, recyclers need to send polystyrene to a dedicated facility which increases the cost to the recycler and reduces their incentive to process the material.
If they are mixed with recyclables, they cause contamination of perfectly good recyclable materials. The portion of recyclers is so low, that just 12% of polystyrene is recycled each year. So many recyclers don’t want to take this material on that it is often cheaper to just produce virgin EPS materials instead of working to reuse recycled materials.
Polystyrene Corporations Take Responsibility
Some polystyrene manufacturers own up to their hard-to-recycle materials. One such group, The Dart Container Corporation, has four plants in the United States and Canada that take back large-scale amounts of their own packaging from schools, hospitals, and supermarkets. The material is mulched, remelted, and pelletized in their recycling plant to make a renewed version of the hard plastic polystyrene material.
These recycled pellets can also be made into a material that mimics wood for things like park benches and fence posts, reducing dependence on forestry resources.
Check With Your Local Municipality For Polystyrene Recycling Options
Some local municipalities and specialized recycling services that take on “hard to recycle” items have drop-off locations. Check our guide below for resources.
Check Out This Video on 7 Easy and Creative Styrofoam Recycling Ideas You Can Do Yourself
Is Styrofoam Recyclable: The Guide For Responsible Polystyrene Recycling
You might be confused about why we called polystyrene, with the number 6 recycling designation, “commonly unrecyclable,” and now we have a guide on recycling it! Number 6 recyclables refer to the hard plastic type of polystyrene, not the foam type. However, there are ways beyond the curbside pick-up to get your EPS to the right place for processing, albeit they might take some extra diligence on the recycler’s part.
The Environmental Protection Agency keeps a guide for programs accepting mail-in batches of styrofoam. It’s not exactly convenient, and you’ll have to cover postage, but if you have taken on environmentally detrimental waste, the responsibility is yours to see it back to renewal.
Drop Off Sites
Earth 911 keeps an excellent comprehensive guide for nearly every major United States city with drop-off locations that will accept polystyrene (styrofoam). It’s best to double-check with a call before setting off with your polystyrene for drop-off.
This might surprise many people, but courier services like UPS will take back clean packing peanuts for reuse and bubble wrap and airpaks.
Large Volume Private Pick-Up
This option is not for the everyday consumer but for companies that go through large volumes. Some local municipal recyclers can arrange a private pick-up for large volumes of clean, dry EPS. You’ll need to check ahead about their receiving requirements (stacked, bagged, condensed).
Tips To Keep In Mind For Recycling Polystyrene, Styrofoam, or EPS Materials
Before heading to any recycling option for Styrofoam, polystyrene, or EPS materials, be sure that they are:
- Clean, dry, and free of debris.
- Remove any adhesive tape.
- Stack, bag, bail, or condense large amounts according to instruction.
- Remove labels or plastic covering.
So, is styrofoam recyclable? Yes. The bottom line is that the best way to deal with polystyrene materials is to not deal with them.
Recently many states have flat-out banned styrofoam and polystyrene products, including Maryland in 2020, followed by Maine and Vermont in 2021, and New York just this year. As we advance towards global environmental goals and government mandates, more sustainable materials are becoming available. Please support the companies that are doing better as they know better; eventually; we’ll see our recycling problems improve.
Read next: Can You Recycle Old Clothes?