Polystyrene use, also known as Styrofoam, will rival the popularity of plastic bags. From electronics to packaging and building insulation, this versatile material does everything from keeping our deliveries from breaking to keeping us warm. Almost all manufacturers use it one way or the other. So, can you recycle polystyrene?
In 2019, the production capacity for polystyrene amounted to 15.61 million metric tons. Economy experts predict a slight growth by 2024 at 15.68 million metric tons3. Evidently, polystyrene is widely consumed, and we should all be concerned about its environmental impact.
Polystyrene is a versatile plastic resin made by polymerizing styrene, a building block chemical. It comes in two forms: one is hard and clear plastic, and the other is expanded polystyrene (EPS).
Formerly, they created EPS with chlorofluorocarbon blowing agents. Authorities deemed the chemicals unhealthy for the environment, and manufacturers discontinued the practice. Now, they make the foam using carbon dioxide gas or pentane. EPS can contain around 98% air.
Manufacturers also blend polystyrene with 5-10% butadiene rubber to create high-impact polystyrene. They use it in the production of electronics, toys, gardening pots, and automobile parts.
Eduard Simon, a German scientist, reported styrene polymerization in 1839. But because of impurities that caused it to be non-durable, it found little commercial use. In 1937, American chemist Robert Dreisbach developed a polymerization process that produced purified styrene. Quickly, it became an essential plastic product.
People commonly refer to expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) as Styrofoam. However, Styrofoam is a brand name registered to the Dow Chemical Company2.
The plastic resin code for polystyrene is #6. It is not usually taken by curbside recycling programs in most places but can be recycled via special recycling programs.
In 2016, the EPS Industry Alliance showed that 118 million pounds of EPS were recycled. In the United States, 136 million pounds of EPS were recycled in 2019.
While solid polystyrene may be easier to recycle, EPS is more challenging to recycle. Facilities face difficulty recycling Styrofoam or polystyrene because it is an end product that can not be unexpanded. Whether styrofoam containers, packaging, or various other applications, most facilities cannot reduce this down into a reusable form. However, recycling facilities have the equipment to process EPS into materials for other uses.
Another problem when addressing the question, "is styrofoam recyclable?" is that expanded polystyrene is bulky and lightweight. Primarily, manufacturers use EPS foam packaging to bulk out and protect more oversized items such as electrical goods. As a result, recycling EPS can prove uneconomical due to the need to collect large volumes of the material in its expanded form.
Styrofoam doesn't biodegrade naturally. As a plastic product, albeit with lots of air, according to the Environmental Action Association, expanded polystyrene foam can take as long as 500 years to break down.
Polystyrene and EPS are popularly used in the food service industry. Polystyrene is cheap, durable, and has high resistance to water damage. You'll find takeaway styrofoam food containers, transparent containers, disposable cutleries and plates, beverage cups, and egg cartons popularly made from polystyrene.
Because of its ease of sterilization and clarity, they also use it to make laboratory wares like test tubes and Petri dishes. Expanded polystyrene is useful for foam packaging and insulation. It protects shipped goods and provides excellent thermal insulation for buildings and cold storage facilities. Because of its inertness, it is a useful material in electronics manufacturing.
Depending on the form in which polystyrene comes, different recycling and reuse options are available. Here is a list to choose from
The easiest and cheapest way for people to recycle expanded polystyrene is to reuse it. Hard polystyrene products are easier to reuse. You can repurpose them to serve other functions in your home.
Some types of EPS foam polystyrene can also be upcycled. The upside of reusing waste polystyrene EPS is a plastics-based material that will last long. You can reuse the material in the following ways.
You can preserve packing peanuts for personal use. It is a great way to protect fragile items when shipping, moving, or storage. This keeps the material out of the landfill and helps you save on packaging and storage expenses.
Related: Curious about that other ubiquitous packing material? We also answer, "Is bubble wrap recyclable?"
Getting rid of packing peanuts can be as easy as giving them to stores for reuse. Some companies will accept solid EPS and break it down to serve as loose packaging. Shipping stores will appreciate the financial, labor, and emissions costs saved by your donations.
You can use the Plastic Loose Fill Council's website to find businesses around you that take waste peanuts. Before you donate, ensure that the peanuts are clean and debris-free.
You can get creative with polystyrene products. You can make a miniature flower basket from polystyrene coffee cups. The lightweight foam is excellent for creating floatable stuffed toys for your kids.
People even make home decor and ornaments with it. You can also try giving your polystyrene cup a lick of paint for pencil holders. They also make a very versatile material for all sorts of space crafts and playsets the kids might imagine.
Old polystyrene egg cartons are great for growing little plant seedlings. Another tip for reuse is to tear up into small pieces larger packaging made from expanded polystyrene EPS, and you can use it in place of stones in the bottom of planters to allow plant roots to breathe.
Keep heavy furniture and appliances from scratching the floor and counter using EPS chunks from discarded packing material as padding. You may need to replace the pads from time to time as the material compresses.
In many cities, it ends up in the waste bin with paint cans and paper towels, as most curbside recycling programs do not accept them. As such, you can't recycle Styrofoam normally with your plastic bottles and aluminum cans.
You should check with your local council to see if your local recycling program makes an exception.
In its expanded form, it is bulky and hardly cost-efficient when transported. This discourages styrofoam recycling. Processors do not recycle polystyrene used for food packaging due to hygienic concerns. However, other options below do exist, so you can see what recycling option works best for you.
Find drop-off sites around your area using recycling search engines like Earth 911. Recycling centers may not accept all polystyrene forms, so ensure you find the right ones for each kind of polystyrene you want to recycle. Note that most recycling plants will reject food and medical containers.
The EPS Industry Alliance keeps a directory of recycling companies and foam packaging recyclers that you can access online.
If you run a business that amasses large amounts of EPS, partner with a recycling company interested in coming to pick it up. You will need to create a conducive storage space for the EPS waste, pending pick-up time. To maximize storage space, you can compress the volume using Styromelt or similar equipment.
You can send back EPS to the factories that produced them via a take-back program run through the EPS-International Alliance. The EPS-IA has a list of over twenty-five producers along with the information needed to ship it to them. EPS is lightweight; therefore, it should not attract expensive shipping fees.
In the United States and Canada, the Dart Container Corporation accepts polystyrene foam waste from hospitals, supermarkets, schools, and other sources. They accept clean or soiled foam and turn the material into extruded polystyrene pellets. You may find similar programs in your area that take polystyrene foam packaging.
The proper sorting process for polystyrene includes ensuring all items are clean, free from food scraps, and empty. Labels, tape, and other types of plastic are contaminants that ruin the recycling process, so you must remove them. Also, break expanded polystyrene into smaller chunks or compress it to a condensed shape to take up less shipping space.
Manufacturers use recycled EPS to create a product that has a similar appearance to wood. The material is a cheap and eco-friendly substitute for virgin trees. It works excellently as fence posts and park benches. It helps to conserve forest resources.
The manufacturing process of polystyrene consumes nonrenewable petroleum resources. Recycling helps to conserve energy and materials. Polystyrene recycling also helps to conserve waste management resources. EPS is lightweight, so it only takes up 0.01% of the weight of municipal solid waste. However, its expansion makes it voluminous and takes up valuable landfill space.
Over the years, plastics have become an environmental pollutant. It is a menace to marine life. Research estimates that plastics like EPS account for about 60 to 80% of ocean debris1. Recycling polystyrene is better for the planet than incineration, as burning it may release some toxic chemicals into the air.
When correctly recycled in the waste stream, your discarded plastic-based EPS packaging will most likely find a new lease of life as another product. Once sent off to recycling facilities, first, the product is ground up, and then the air is usually removed with heat and friction.
From here, a large variety of new uses emerge for recycled material. From building insulation to creating plastic alternatives to wooden benches and even decking. The good news is that when manufacturers use recycled materials to create these new goods, no new raw material is required to consume our finite resources.
Recycling polystyrene is a choice that has a positive impact on the planet. Whereas it is not without its issues and may seem like an effort, the more we reuse and recycle, the better for the planet. Companies and their customers have roles to play in bringing these benefits. Recycling polystyrene may not be the easiest thing, but it does make a difference.
Samuel Abalansa et al. (2020) The marine plastic litter issue: a social-economic analysis
Joseph A. Davis (2019) Styrofoam facts - Why you may want to bring your own cup. Issue Backgrounder. Society of Environmental Journalists.
Garside M. (2020) Global production capacity of polystyrene 2018 & 2024. Statista.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.