Is Styrofoam recyclable?

StyrofoamTM is a trademarked name for hard foam sold by Dow Chemical Company also known as Dupont. However, over the years styrofoam has become a genericized name given to most packaging foam, this foam is better referred to as polystyrene foam. 

In this article, I will go over whether styrofoam and polystyrene foam are recyclable. I will discuss these two main types of polystyrene foams and the differences between them, the challenges of recycling these foams, and what consequences we face when these foams are not recycled properly. 

Can we recycle styrofoam? 

Yes, both StyrofoamTM and polystyrene foam are 100% recyclable. However, these are extremely cheap to make. The cost of recycling is often more than producing new foam, which is why it’s rarely recycled in most countries. 

One other problem with recycling these foams is that specialized equipment is required for this, these equipment are expensive and require specialized handling. The city-run general recycling centers usually do not keep this equipment due to budgetary restrictions. 

What is StyrofoamTM

StyrofoamTM  as mentioned before is a trademark of Dow Chemicals Company. However, over the years it has become synonymous with the white packaging foam that’s ubiquitous in our lives. 

The original Styrofoam is a hardboard used for insulation in buildings. 

Whereas the generalized name refers to polystyrene foam that’s much softer and airier which is used to make disposable plates, and cups as well as packaging material, these are amongst a few of its myriad of uses. 

StyrofoamTM is generally a blue board which is an extruded polystyrene foam (XPS). These foams are made by the process of extrusion where the plastic is put under shear and compressive forces to generate highly dense boards of a specific size. 

Polystyrene foam is the expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) which is the material used to make cups, food containers, insulated boxes, etc. 

StyrofoamTM is made from polystyrene, or recyclable plastic number 6. Polystyrene is extremely versatile, and the mechanical pressure exerted on it determines what type of foam will be produced. 

Polystyrene foam is majority air with only 2% of its content being plastic. This light, airy texture makes it an extremely cheap material for single-use purposes. 

Moreover, this attribute makes it a good insulator since it traps air molecules within it. Air is a bad insulator, which is why trapping it is the only way to trap the heat from dissipating. 

How much Polystyrene foam and StyrofoamTM  is recycled? 

In most cases polystyrene foam is thrown into the garbage, with a recycling rate around 12% globally.

Well-meaning people throw it into curbside recycling along with other recyclables like paper, aluminium, and PET. The problem with throwing them into general recycling is that most counties and municipalities do not have a polystyrene foam recycling program. 

There are multiple factors that affect the rate of polystyrene foam and StyrofoamTM recycling. First of all, these foams are extremely cheap and the cost of recycling often outweighs the cost of new plastic. 

Second of all, EPS recycling requires specialized equipment which is not housed in most recycling plants, thus there is an added transportation cost to carry these to a specialized center.

EPS is bulky yet light, which means a large area is required to carry a small amount of plastic, keep in mind these foams are only 2% plastic. This transportation cost dissuades most companies from recycling EPS. 

Most polystyrene foam that is used in food packaging is not recycled since they mostly contain contaminants such as tissues, and food waste. This has led many cities and states such as California to ban the use of EPS for takeaway containers. 

In some countries like the United Kingdom, approximately 50% of polystyrene foam is recycled. Which is much higher than the global average. 

There has been some attempt taken to reduce the use of polystyrene foam in food packaging. However, better systems with efficient recycling is the only way to remove the giant piles of foam that are building up in our landfills. 

There are several ways in which polystyrene foam can be recycled; which are discussed below.

How is Polystyrene foam recycled?

The three ways by which polystyrene foam is recycled are granulation, compacting, and densifying. 

  • Granulation- lighter density polystyrene like EPS is fed into a machine that separates the foam down to its basic granules. These granules are then mixed with newly-made EPS granules to make new material.
  • Compacting- usually denser polystyrene foam like XPS or some EPS are fed into a machine which presses them extremely hard until the air escapes all pockets of the foam. The remaining material is hard polystyrene which is then granulated or pelletized to make an array of materials.
  • Densifying- in this method polystyrene foam, mostly EPS, is first shredded. Then heat and pressure is applied to create hard polystyrene which is then pelletized to make plastic objects. 

Is polystyrene foam bad for the environment? 

Yes, both EPS and XPS are bad for the environment. It’s important to note that the volume of EPS that ends up in landfills is mammoth compared to XPS. Which is why EPS pollution is a serious concern for us globally. 

Much of these EPS from food takeaway containers, coffee cups, and packing peanuts end up in our oceans. This is partly due to poor disposal systems in certain countries and the fact that EPS does not degrade. 

It takes approximately 500 years for polystyrene foam to degrade which essentially means it remains in our water bodies and lands for forever. Over time it breaks down forming microplastics. 

There is a global crisis at the moment where marine life is being heavily affected by microplastics. They consume microplastics, mistaking it for food, which over time block their digestive tracts leading to death. 

Not only that, these microplastics then travel up the food chain and eventually reach humans. Even though there isn’t sufficient evidence linking polystyrene to cancer, styren ,the liquid monomer used to make this plastic, is highly carcinogenic.

We do not know if the level of degradation of Polystyrene into styrene results in cancer in humans yet, but it is wise to be on the side of caution. One of the reasons why it’s discouraged to use EPS for hot food and drinks is because the heat breaks down the plastic releasing styrene into the food. 

Polystyrene foam is a 100% recyclable material which is irresponsibly dumped into our lands and oceans because of high costs of recycling. In order to solve this problem we need to find alternatives to this material which is more sustainable.

One such thing is EPS like packaging material made out of mushrooms, or packing peanuts made of cornstarch. There have been many attempts in the past to reduce EPS use and to repurpose and recycle the existing EPS from our landfills. 

There is a company in Mexico city which makes solid polystyrene from EPS which is then used to make bricks for roads and homes. There are several other companies like this popping up all over the world. 

If these companies are successful we can see an end to this massive plastic pollution. 

Conclusion:

In this article, I went over whether styrofoam and polystyrene foam are recyclable. I discussed these two main types of polystyrene foams and the differences between them, the challenges of recycling these foams, and what consequences we face when these foams are not recycled properly. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Is styrofoam recyclable? 

Are Styrofoam and polystyrene foam the same thing? 

No, they aren’t the same thing. Styrofoam is a TM of Dow Chemical Company. This is made by an extrusion process, thus called XPS. Where polystyrene is a generic name for all expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) which is used for insulation as well as packaging. 

Can I recycle Polystyrene foam? 

Yes, there are specialized polystyrene foam recycling plants. Just make sure you have one in your area. Most cities have drop off points where you can drop your polystyrene foam wastes between certain hours of the day. 

Is styrofoam recyclable? 

Yes. Styrofoam is recyclable. However, not all recycling plants process styrofoam. Make sure your local recycling plant recycles styrofoam before you throw it in the general recycling bin.

There are specialized recycling programs that accept styrofoam. Check if you have any in your area, if you do there may be set bins where you can throw the foam. Or you may be able to ask for a pick up for a small fee. 

What do I do with Styrofoam? 

Styrofoam (TM) is a blue board that is used in construction as floor, wall, and roof insulation. 

Why is Styrofoam not recyclable?

It is recyclable. However, your city may not have a recycling system for styrofoam. Please check your local guidelines for more details.

Can styrofoam (polystyrene foam) be reused? 

Yes, there are many ways to reuse polystyrene foam. For example, they can be used as packing peanuts next time you need to send a parcel. If you have a lot of packing peanuts already you can drop them off at your local UPS or FedEx office, they’ll appreciate the donation.

There are many creative ways to reuse polystyrene foam. Check out DIYs online to know more. 

How to dispose of styrofoam (polystyrene foam)? 

If recycling or reusing aren’t options, the only thing to do with styrofoam is to dump it in the garbage. Make sure you check your city’s disposal methods before you do so, just in case they have a special program. 

Is polystyrene foam bad for the environment? 

Yes, it is extremely harmful to the environment. Styrene, a monomer used to make Polystyrene, is a carcinogen. There are studies that have shown that styrene may leak out of the plastic if it’s not disposed of properly. This may affect aquatic life since most plastic ends up in the ocean. 

References: 

  1. Is Styrofoam™ Recyclable? – Communities for Recycling. (2021). Retrieved 12 December 2021, from https://recyclingpartnership.org/communitiesforrecycling/is-styrofoam-recyclable/
  2. Is Styrofoam recyclable? How to dispose of it properly – Ecomii. (2021). Retrieved 12 December 2021, from https://ecomii.com/household/is-styrofoam-recyclable/
  3. Levins, C. (2021). Proper Disposal: Is Styrofoam Packaging Recyclable?. Retrieved 12 December 2021, from https://www.airseacontainers.com/blog/is-styrofoam-packaging-recyclable
  4. Is Styrofoam Recyclable? Behind the Main Ingredient, Polystyrene. (2021). Retrieved 12 December 2021, from https://www.greenmatters.com/p/is-styrofoam-recyclable
  5. You Asked, We Answered: Is Styrofoam Recyclable?. (2021). Retrieved 12 December 2021, from https://greencitizen.com/is-styrofoam-recyclable/
  6. Styrofoam Recycling + Disposal. (2021). Retrieved 12 December 2021, from https://www.kirklandwa.gov/Government/Departments/Public-Works-Department/Trash-Recycling-Compost/Recycle/Beyond-the-Cart/Styrofoam
  7. Trash & Recycling | Thousand Oaks, CA. (2021). Retrieved 12 December 2021, from https://www.toaks.org/departments/public-works/sustainability/trash-recycling#!rc-cpage=268647
  8. How to recycle Styrofoam in California. (2021). Retrieved 12 December 2021, from https://www.hunker.com/12002950/how-to-recycle-styrofoam-in-california
  9. Is Styrofoam recyclable?. (2021). Retrieved 12 December 2021, from https://wasteless.zerowastescotland.org.uk/articles/styrofoam-recycling
  10. Polystyrene – London Recycles. (2021). Retrieved 12 December 2021, from https://londonrecycles.co.uk/a-to-z/polystyrene/

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