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Styrofoam is everywhere, from takeout containers to packaging. But can you recycle Styrofoam?

What is Styrofoam?

Styrofoam is a trademarked product of the Dow Chemical Company, introduced in the US in 1954. It’s a type of closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam (XPS), primarily used for insulation in buildings.

However, the term Styrofoam is often used to refer to different polystyrene foam products. The white, rigid foam we commonly use is technically expanded polystyrene foam (EPS). The food industry widely uses EPS for single-use items like takeout containers, plates, and cups. They also use it as packing peanuts.

EPS is denoted by the recycling symbol #6. However, this doesn’t mean it’s easily recyclable. In fact, Styrofoam requires special equipment for recycling, making the process more complex than it seems.


The Environmental Impact of Styrofoam

The food industry and other industries widely use Styrofoam, a popular name for Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), because of its versatility and convenience. The manufacturers make EPS from polystyrene beads, which are lightweight yet strong and offer excellent thermal insulation and shock absorption properties. These characteristics make EPS an appealing choice for several applications.

The Environmental Impact of Styrofoam

However, despite its convenience, Styrofoam has a significant environmental impact that cannot be overlooked. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans generated approximately 80,000 tons of Styrofoam containers in 2018. Shockingly, less than 5,000 tons of these containers were recycled. In addition, around 140,000 tons of polystyrene bags, sacks, and wraps were produced in the same year, with only about 20,000 tons recycled.

The environmental concerns surrounding Styrofoam are primarily due to its non-biodegradable nature. When EPS products are discarded and end up in landfills or as litter, they release chemical pollutants and greenhouse gases. These emissions contribute significantly to global warming, making the environmental impact of Styrofoam a critical issue that needs immediate attention.

Moreover, Styrofoam’s lightweight nature makes it susceptible to being carried by wind or water, leading to widespread littering. This litter can harm wildlife, as animals often mistake Styrofoam pieces for food, leading to ingestion or choking.

Furthermore, the production of Styrofoam involves the use of petroleum, a non-renewable resource. The extraction and refining of petroleum have their own environmental impacts, including air and water pollution, and contribution to climate change.


Is Styrofoam Recyclable?

Yes, Styrofoam is recyclable. However, it requires specific handling and cannot be placed in regular recycling bins. Styrofoam, or Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), can only be recycled at designated recycling centers equipped with the necessary machinery.


Why is Styrofoam Hard to Recycle?

Styrofoam is one of the most challenging materials to recycle. It consists of 95% air, making it lightweight and bulky. This composition means it takes up a lot of space in trash cans and recycling bins, causing logistical issues. For instance, imagine how much space a single Styrofoam container occupies in a trash can. This space requirement makes it impractical for regular commercial recycling bins.

Fortunately, some recycling programs accept Styrofoam waste. These programs often have special drop-off locations or collection events for Styrofoam. Also, a few municipalities offer curbside recycling programs with specialized equipment, allowing you to place Styrofoam in your recycling bin. However, these programs are relatively rare, so it’s essential to locate recycling facilities that accept Styrofoam.


What’s the Best Way to Recycle Styrofoam?

Recycling Styrofoam can be challenging, but there are a few methods to repurpose and recycle it. Here are the top ways to recycle Styrofoam and protect our environment:

1. Find a Foam Recycling Facility

If curbside recycling bins aren’t an option, locate a foam recycling facility. Many recycling centers accept clean EPS packaging, such as food containers and protective packaging. To find a facility near you, research online or call your local recycling center. Always check the recycling codes on the Styrofoam to ensure it’s acceptable. EPS usually has a “X6” recycle code, while Extruded Polystyrene Foam (EFS) has a “NP6” code. Proper identification helps ensure it ends up in the right place.

2. Use for Drainage in Potted Plants

Another way to recycle styrofoam is to use it as a drainage layer in potted plants. Reuse Styrofoam as a drainage layer in non-edible potted plants or seedlings. It’s lightweight and prevents root rot. Poke holes in the bottom, cover the foam with soil, and use larger pieces for bigger plants. Remember, use Styrofoam only for non-edible plants to avoid contamination.

3. Combine with Acetone to Make Glue

You can also use styrofoam packaging to create your glue. Create homemade glue by soaking Styrofoam pieces in acetone. This forms a strong adhesive for materials like cardstock, foam, and wood. Ensure you have safety gear and a well-ventilated area when handling acetone.

4. Turn Blocks of Foam into Packing Materials

Businesses can also invest in shredders to turn Styrofoam blocks into packing material. This reduces waste and provides cost-effective packaging solutions. For smaller batches, use a blender to create usable packing material from Styrofoam.

5. Use for Insulation

Another creative way to recycle styrofoam is to use it for insulation. Recycle Styrofoam by using it as insulation for garages, attics, dog houses, and sheds. It’s durable, lightweight, and resistant to extreme temperatures and pests. Treat the Styrofoam with a fire-retardant solution before use to ensure safety. Properly installed Styrofoam insulation is cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

6. Repurpose Styrofoam for DIY Home Decor

You can also transform Styrofoam sheets into wall art or decorative pieces. Carve patterns, apply finishes, and create eco-friendly furniture elements. Lightweight decor like wall shelves or centerpieces can also be crafted from Styrofoam. This method showcases creativity and reduces waste. Furthermore, you can repurpose Styrofoam into holiday ornaments. Cut festive shapes from the foam, add intricate designs, and paint them in vibrant colors.


Frequently Asked Questions

Can Styrofoam egg cartons be recycled?

Yes, Styrofoam egg cartons are recyclable if taken to specialized recycling centers. Sometimes, you can place them in a recycling bin, but this depends on whether your local government offers a curbside recycling program for Styrofoam.

How do you destroy Styrofoam?

You can destroy Styrofoam by dissolving it with acetone. However, be cautious as this process can release toxic carcinogens into the air.

How do you recycle Styrofoam at home?

You can recycle Styrofoam at home if your local curbside recycling program accepts it in the recycling bin. Alternatively, you can donate it to recycle delivery personnel.


Take Away

While Styrofoam offers versatility and convenience, its environmental impact is significant due to its non-biodegradable nature and the pollution caused during its production. Recycling Styrofoam can be challenging due to its composition and the need for special equipment. However, by finding designated recycling facilities, repurposing it for drainage in potted plants, or using it for insulation, we can reduce the environmental impact of Styrofoam and move towards a more sustainable future.


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