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Can You Recycle Styrofoam?

Last Updated: December 9, 2021

Can You Recycle Styrofoam?

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We’ve all used Styrofoam takeout containers, foam cups, and ice chests. Or have we? In fact, those products are not actually made of “Styrofoam.” They are made of white expanded or extruded polystyrene (EPS) foam. Real Styrofoam is actually a brand name and registered trademark, manufactured by DuPont. This actual Styrofoam is an extruded polystyrene (XPS) insulation that is used in homes and buildings for insulation.

It turns out that people refer to the more common EPS products as Styrofoam in the same way we refer to tissues as Kleenex, lip balm as Chapstick, and frozen ice treats on a stick as Popsicles. Because of the popularity of these products, the brand name becomes synonymous with the trademarked or brand name, turning it into something called a proprietary eponym.

What are Styrofoam Materials Used For?

Regardless of what you call it, there is no doubt that this foam material is everywhere. Items such as foam cups and plates are at restaurants, picnics, packaging facilities and construction sites. In fact, it is often considered one of the most common substances in everyday life.

It is used to make cups, refrigerators, home insulation, egg cartons, shipping and packaging materials, cycling helmets, children’s car seats, toys, flotation devices, hot tubs, costumes, restaurant carry-out containers, and even movie sets. The list goes on due to its versatility and low cost.

What is Styrofoam?

Styrofoam, the actual trademarked product, is a closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam (XPS) made from the petroleum product styrene, refined into expanded polystyrene with a hydrofluorocarbon agent added. The more commonly known EPS foam that is found in many consumer products is also made from polystyrene, combined with colorants, additives, and even other plastics. During the manufacturing process, expanded polystyrene foam is made using various gases and steam. This results in it ending up being around 95% air.

Is Styrofoam Toxic?

Styrofoam and EPS foam are composed of non-toxic organic elements, including carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They do not contain any environmentally-toxic substances such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).

However, while expanded foam material is itself not considered toxic, it can release harmful chemicals in some circumstances, especially if it is heated. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) reports that the styrene used to manufacture polystyrene foam products is “reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen.”

Styrofoam Food Containers

There is continuing research to determine the effect of heating the foam material and its ability to leach into food. An occasional coffee in a Styrofoam cup shouldn’t be a problem, but you should avoid heating food with foam containers in a microwave. The radiation can begin to break down the chemicals in styrene containers.

The foam begins to soften at 212 degrees F and researchers are not yet certain how much of the chemical compounds contaminate the heated food. The FDA does regulate foam food containers and packaging materials. You may see a label indicating that a plastic container is safe for microwave heating. However, check before popping those take-out leftovers in the microwave.

Styrofoam and Landfill Waste

An additional concern is the effect these products have on the environment. EPS and XPS foam take a very long time to degrade, up to 500 years according to Washington University. This type of foam degrades slowly and is resistant to photolysis (decomposition by exposure to light). In many landfills, trash is covered up quickly, eliminating the effect of air and sunlight. This considerably slows decomposition of plastics in a landfill. Even worse, as it breaks down, it releases toxic substances.

This makes Styrofoam a hazard in landfills and in areas that are polluted with trash. Styrofoam from landfills can be picked up by the wind and deposited even miles away. This causes trash buildup in neighboring communities and littering along shorelines, streets, and buildings. This debris eventually can clog storm drains and be ingested by animals. Even the ozone layer can be affected by this.

Styrofoam and the Environment

Because styrene foam is 95% air, it has excellent buoyancy allowing it to float in waterways, and it often get deposited into our oceans. There, the slow decomposition and the toxicity makes it a significant hazard for marine life. It is broken down into smaller pieces in water and can be ingested by marine wildlife.

Effects of Styrofoam Materials on the Environment

EPS pollution can be found in many different environments, making it a concern for environmental scientists:

  • Plastics comprise almost 90% of floating marine debris.
  • EPS foam is the second most common form of beach debris washed up onshore.
  • Approximately 20% of plastic foam products intended for landfills instead ends up in waterways.
  • Up to 40% of the world’s trash is burned, generating air pollutants from the incineration of plastics.

Is Styrofoam Recyclable?

Since it is used so often, it follows that it is also one of the most discarded products in our environment. Unfortunately, Styrofoam and EPS foam are not usually collected in curbside recycling programs. This causes many to wonder; can Styrofoam be recycled?

It’s not that Styrofoam and EPS foam cannot be recycled. In fact, if you look at these foam products, they have the universal recycling symbol of three chasing arrows with the number 6 inside it. This kind of recycling doesn’t often happen, however.

“There’s a big difference between what’s technically recyclable and what’s being recycled,” explains Tim Shestek, senior director of state affairs for the American Chemistry Council.

The Process of Styrofoam Recycling

Why are these foam products and packaging seldom recycled? It takes special equipment to process the foam for recycling. It also is often contaminated with food waste. This is difficult and costly to clean. This difficulty leads many to believe Styrofoam cannot be recycled.

It is costly to process foam for recycling. Since the recycling process is complicated and expensive, there is no financial incentive to recycle Styrofoam products. In addition, although Styrofoam is very lightweight, it takes up a lot of space. In order to be space-efficient, the foam must be compacted.

Complications with Recycling Styrofoam Materials

Compacting Styrofoam adds even more cost to it's recycling . Companies that attempt to collect, process and recycle it into other materials soon find they are operating at a loss. Even non-profit or municipal entities quickly learn that the recycling effort eats up too much of their operating funds. The extra cost becomes too much to bare.

Even with these recycling challenges, over 136 million pounds of EPS are recycled each year in the United States. EPS recycling is expected to continue to grow with the continued launch of new collection and recycling centers. While difficult, it is still wise to see if a local recycling center will accept your Styrofoam waste.

How to Safely Dispose of Styrofoam

an infographic on how to dispose of styrofoam
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1. Find a community collection/recycling program

You can find a facility that accepts plastic foam products near you by visiting Earth911 or Foam Facts. Sometimes community collection events offer a way to bring EPS for recycling, but check before you head out to make sure they will accept that type of material.

2. Reuse your Styrofoam and foam packing material

If you have no place to take your EPS or Styrofoam peanuts or packaging for recycling, you can reuse it instead of tossing it in your regular trash. There are lots of creative ways to reuse it:

  • Packing peanuts for mailing/shipping
  • Craft projects
  • Plant pot filler and soil additive
  • Costume and prop construction
  • Insulation for greenhouses and cold frames
  • Stuffing for pillows or stuffed animals

3. Donate to organizations, businesses, and local mail and packaging store

Foam packing material, mostly in the form of packing peanuts or popcorn, can be reused over and over rather than tossing it into a landfill. Most sites that accept foam peanuts ask that all other material, such as plastic bags, paper filler, and any cardboard, be removed from the packing peanuts. Some will only accept white packing peanuts, so all colored foam pieces would also need to be removed.

4. Sell your Styrofoam packing material

If your foam packing material is clean and in good condition, you can offer it for sale on a neighborhood group like Nextdoor or Facebook Marketplace or an online sellers’ site such as eBay. If you price it low and it is very clean, you may find someone to buy it from you.

The Eco-Friendly Way to Reduce Foam Material Use

Since foam recycling can be challenging, one of the most impactful ways to reduce the harmful impacts on people and the environment is to look for alternatives to EPS and Styrofoam. Support companies that use eco-friendly packaging such as paper filler, cornstarch-based packing peanuts, and air packaging.

Look for restaurants that package their take-out and leftover food in cardboard or paper containers. rather than using single-use polystyrene containers and cups. Innovative entrepreneurs are experimenting with take-out containers made from materials such as bamboo fiber, sugarcane, Miscanthus plants, molded pulp fiber, biodegradable plastic, poly-coated craft paper and grease-resistant paperboard. If you have the option to bring in a reusable container or to reuse packing peanuts, this is always a good first choice.

Improved Technology for EPS and Styrofoam Products on the Horizon

Presently, most recycling facilities that accept EPS foam operate at a loss. One company, Styro-Go is working to reduce those costs. President Robert Herritt explains,

“You just can’t make money out of it. That’s why nobody does it.”

Styro-Go has a fleet of trucks equipped with built-in Styrofoam compactors.

Once truck can process up to five 53-foot long tractor-trailers worth of foam into compact blocks. This compacted material is used to make everything from furniture to airplane cabinetry, tiles, frames, and plastic molding. Outside of reducing use in the first place, this and other innovations in the field could be the best strategy for reducing or eliminating the harmful effects of our massive foam material production and consumption in the long run.

About Monica Mayhak

I am an expert content writer with a depth of experience in the waste management and dumpster industry, with over 25 years of experience writing about construction, home improvement, property management, and education topics. As lead research writer for Discount Dumpster, I have expanded my knowledge and understanding of waste management, construction, and environmental issues over the past several years.

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