Never, ever put Styrofoam in your recycling container.
It will break into tiny little pieces in the sorting equipment at your local recycling facility. Then it will get all over everything else. It will contaminate every bale of sorted recyclables.
So what should we do about it? Recycle it!
What is Styrofoam, and what is it good for?
Styrofoam is Dow Chemical Company’s trademark for expanded polystyrene (EPS).
You can identify polystyrene because it has the number 6 in the familiar recycling triangle. If you see the 6 on anything but foam, your recycling program will probably accept it. EPS waste is another matter.
Polystyrene itself is hard, brittle, and clear (if not dyed). You have plenty around the house if you have very many CDs, CD-ROMs, or DVDs in jewel cases. Or if you have plastic forks and spoons.
Only expanded into foam does it cause problems with recycling. EPS is about 5% polystyrene and 95% air.
Foam makes great packaging material. That’s why you find it in the box protecting that appliance you just bought. Or EPS packing peanuts in so many boxes companies ship to you.
It also makes a great insulator. Your house might have EPS insulation. Home insulation doesn’t raise recycling issues.
You can buy EPS coolers. If you get a fountain soft drink in a Styrofoam cup, it stays cold longer. If you get hot coffee, the cup won’t burn your fingers while you hold it.
Why is Styrofoam a problem?
Like most plastic, it does not degrade. As it breaks into smaller pieces, its chemical structure remains unchanged.
Pound for pound, it takes much more landfill space than anything else buried there. According to some estimates, EPS waste amounts to 20-30% of the volume of landfilled trash.
Lightweight plastic litter—not only EPS, but plastic bags—will eventually wind up in streams and waterways if no one picks it up. Bags can get stuck on logs or branches in a stream, but all the littered EPS waste ultimately travels to the ocean.
It makes up to 80% of the plastic litter in our oceans. Small particles of it look like food to many marine animals, but it has no nutritional value. Worse, it gradually kills them by clogging up their digestive systems.
If someone burns EPF waste in a backyard incinerator, it releases toxic chemicals into the air. (In municipal incinerators, on the other hand, its only residue is water vapor and carbon dioxide.)
If we can’t put it out to the curb, what can we do with it?
A map issued by Dart Container Corp. identifies places that accept plastic foam recycling at curbside. It also identifies drop-off locations.
Dart makes EPS containers, and its map identifies only recycling options offered by its partners.
Find additional opportunities with the search “styrofoam recycling near me.”
Some of these centers accept only EPS packaging. Some accept only food service items. Some accept both. Some don’t accept packing peanuts. So when you find some place to take your EPS, be sure to check its policies.
You don’t need to rinse a Styrofoam coffee cup or soft drink cup. You do need to wash off food residue from the foam that held your carry-out meal. A simple rinse should be enough for the EPS in that package of meat you got at the grocery.
Assuming you must use a drop-off center, accumulate enough to make it worth the trip, then take it there from time to time. If you’re part of a club or other small group that meets regularly, have everyone bring their Styrofoam to the meetings. That way, only one person has to take it to the drop-off center.
How is Styrofoam recycled?
Normally, one company processes EPS to make it into a raw material that another company can use to make new products. The Styrofoam recycling process can use different machines.
A foam densifier shreds the EPS and subjects it to heat and pressure. The melted foam forms a paste, which the machine extrudes into a form called an ingot. This process reduces the Styrofoam to 1/90 of its original volume and produces no emissions.
A foam compactor shreds EPS waste and squeezes it into blocks of a uniform size. It only reduces the foam to 1/50 of its original volume, but the blocks are more convenient to transport than the irregularly shaped ingots.
Another machine produces pellets of polystyrene, which may save a step in the manufacturing process.
Remember that Styrofoam is expanded polystyrene. The processing equipment unexpands it. In whatever form results, a manufacturer can use it to make a variety of products.
Did you buy a pen or ruler made from recycled plastic? They may have started out as EPS. When you get plants at a garden center, those plastic packs they come in may be recycled EPS. Recycled EPS also makes picture frames and interior decorative molding.
Avoid taking Styrofoam home if you can. But find a drop-off center for whatever you accumulate.
Foam 101 / Home for Foam
How does polystyrene recycling work? / John Kelly, How Stuff Works. August 29, 2012
The process of Styrofoam recycling / Recycle Tech
Recycling Styrofoam / all-recycling-facts.com