Why styrofoam is so hard to recycle and what you can do about it
Imogen Parker, consumer and manufacturing expert at PA Consulting, discusses styrofoam and shares recycling options.
You've seen styrofoam used for takeout containers and disposable coffee cups. And if you've ever received a package marked "fragile," it most likely contained styrofoam as protective padding.
While expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam — or styrofoam, as it's more commonly called — is just as ubiquitous as single-use plastics, it's more harmful than you may think.
Even though it's not biodegradable, EPS can still be recycled. But unfortunately, doing so is not as easy as throwing it into the nearest blue recycle bin. Here's what you need to know.
Note: "Styrofoam" is a DuPont registered trademark for a particular type of polystyrene foam used for construction and insulation. Expanded polystyrene foam, or EPS for short, is technically the correct way to refer to the white, porous material you know as styrofoam. To avoid any confusion, we'll refer to the material as EPS in this article.
Is EPS recyclable?
EPS is recyclable, but because it is lightweight, bulky, and difficult to clean due to its porous nature and common usage in food packaging, it's a costly material to recycle at an efficient scale, like programs for glass or cardboard.
Most curbside recycling programs don't accept EPS materials, or don't have the capability to recycle them.
When EPS takes up space in landfills, it becomes an even bigger waste management concern. By many accounts, it can take up to 500 years for EPS to decompose, and because it is essentially non-biodegradable waste, it can also leach chemicals into the surrounding environment.
Options for recycling EPS
Most municipal sorting facilities don't have the capability to sort out EPS, so it's best to keep it out of your recycling bin.
Some centers may send any EPS to a landfill because it's too expensive to process. Worst case scenario?
Imogen says: Facilities are "unable to separate [EPS], and it pollutes the recycling stream, preventing other materials from being recycled effectively." Ideally, EPS should be dropped off at a facility that accepts it.
Quick tip: If you can't recycle EPS, think of ways to reuse it. Many UPS store locations accept clean EPS packaging peanuts and bubble wrap for reuse.
How to cut down on EPS usage
Perhaps the best solution for the EPS recycling problem is avoiding it altogether. It's important to keep in mind that styrene — a primary building block of EPS — is considered a health threat to humans by the US Environmental Protection Agency and a "probable carcinogen" by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Imogen add: "The manufacturing process produces lots of pollutants including ground-level ozone and other toxic waste."
Here are some tips for reducing EPS usage, according to Imogen:
- Bring reusable cups and containers from home.
- Choose reduced packaging options when ordering online.
- Buy from brands that use biodegradable packaging.
- Reuse styrofoam for packing up boxes when mailing items or moving.
- Opt for corn-based packing materials if you need to ship something.
The big drop: realising the untapped potential of water on decarbonisation goals