Sustainability made simple

Can You Recycle Styrofoam? It’s Complicated

can you recycle styrofoam
Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / Counselling

Can you recycle styrofoam? The answer is not as straightforward as you might think. Follow this useful guide on how to properly recycle styrofoam.

Styrofoam is that lightweight, usually white material that makes us your takeaway coffee cups and containers, meat trays, and egg cartons. It also comes in the form of packaging peanuts or as blocks used to protect bulkier items such as electronics for delivery and shipping. This type of styrofoam is also known as Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), and just like most other plastic products, EPS is made from petroleum. 

Can You Recycle Styrofoam?

Recycling styrofoam is possible, but it is not straighforward
Recycling styrofoam is possible, but it is not straighforward
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / Clker-Free-Vector-Images)

Because styrofoam is made from petroleum and is 90 percent air and does not easily biodegrade. Instead, styrofoam releases toxic chemicals when it breaks down. It is, as such, one of the hardest materials to recycle. 

However, recycling styrofoam is possible. Special and costly machines are needed, but it can be done. For this reason, recycling your styrofoam on your curbside is not always permitted. But, there are certain recycling centers that have the machines necessary to recycle styrofoam. Check out The Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) to find locations near you that will accept EPS.

Why is it Difficult?

Styrofoam is a number 6 plastic, which means it cannot be recycled along with other recyclable products. Instead, it requires specially designed machinery and equipment to be broken down properly. One of these special machines is called a ‘densifier’. Because EPS products are made up of more than 90 percent air, the process of densifying the material helps in preparing the styrofoam for recycling, as well as making transport of the styrofoam easier. 

Another reason why recycling styrofoam is difficult is that it could take up to 500 years to biodegrade and decompose properly. So this product really is not made to be recycled and broken down easily. 

Which Types Can be Recycled?

Your take-away coffee cup is made from styrofoam and is not easily recyclable.
Your take-away coffee cup is made from styrofoam and is not easily recyclable.
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / Yuri_B)

There are two types of styrofoam: Expanded Polystyrene foam (EPS), which we know as the white foam used in packaging peanuts and to-go containers; and Extruded Polystyrene foam (XPS), which is used as insulating material for construction. Both forms of styrofoam can be recycled, but not without the difficulties as indicated above. 

Thankfully, there are organizations in place in the US that are prepared to collect your styrofoam and recycle it properly for you. Go to the EPS Industry Alliance Packaging website to find the nearest location to you, where you can either drop-off your styrofoam, add it to your curbside recycling, or have it collected.

Where and How Can Styrofoam Be Recycled?

If your local recycling centers have specialized machines for recycling styrofoam, you can simply add styrofoam products to your curbside recycling bin. If collection is not an option for your local area, you can bring it straight to the recycling center and see if they will take it. 

GreenCitizen is another organization in the US that is equipped with the densifier machine and has set up both collection and drop-off points for you to dispose of your styrofoam safely for recycling. 

Keep in mind when recycling your styrofoam that recycling centers cannot accept products that are contaminated by food or drink, so make sure to clean or wipe away any leftovers before handing your styrofoam over. 

Other Recycling Options and Alternatives to Styrofoam

Bring your own reusable coffee cup with you to cut down on styrofoam.
Bring your own reusable coffee cup with you to cut down on styrofoam.
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / Alexas_Fotos)

Reusing styrofoam and giving it another life is also a great option. Check with your local retailers and couriers, who may happily reuse your old packaging peanuts in stores or for shipping. Or check out more options for recycling packaging peanuts.

To approach the problem from a different angle, there are a few things you can do to cut down on your styrofoam usage altogether. For example, the next time you go to pick up your morning coffee, bring a reusable coffee cup. The same can now be done in many restaurants. If you bring your own containers or jars, they will fill them with your take-out for you. Lastly, if you can, cut out the middle-man of home delivery, and go to the shops yourself to buy or collect your orders. 

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