The Benefits of Expanded Polystyrene Foam Recycling

Whether it’s holding your takeout, protecting your furniture or cushioning your head in a beer-pong game, expanded polystyrene foam—more commonly known as Styrofoam—is everywhere. It’s designated by plastic recycling code #6 PS and can be found in day-to-day items like the housing on smoke detectors or your favorite foam cup.

Reusable Packaging

Reusable packaging is an eco-friendly alternative to disposable products. It’s durable and can be used several times over, making it a cost-effective option for businesses. This type of packaging also reduces the amount of waste a business produces. It’s a great way to cut down on landfill and environmental pollution, too.

Polystyrene foam (also known as Styrofoam) is one of the most common types of environmental litter. It can be found throughout communities and natural areas and is a hazard to wildlife. It’s often mistaken for food by fish and other marine animals, which can then clog their digestive tracts, causing severe health issues.

Expanded polystyrene is classed as plastic number 6, and it is not recycled in most places. It’s usually added to landfill or burnt, but these are not good options for the environment. Landfills are a source of harmful chemical pollutants that can pollute water supplies, while burning Styrofoam results in carbon emissions, which contribute to global warming.

Avoiding Single-Use Items

Styrofoam and other foam packaging items are among the most common sources of environmental litter, polluting our beaches, waterways and natural areas. They also take far longer than other waste to break down in landfills, where they contribute to microplastic pollution.

EPS, which is known by other names like expanded polystyrene, styrofoam and airpop, has long been used as packing material. It is lightweight, shock-absorbing, moisture-resistant and insulating. However, it should not be placed in food bins or single-use plastic cups.

The good news is that EPS can be recycled, but it’s not as simple as throwing it in your blue recycling bin. You may need to check with local drop-off sites, such as Earth911’s Recycling Search, to see if they accept it or look for alternatives that are made from mushrooms or other biodegradable materials. The best option, though, is to avoid EPS entirely and opt for reusable, recycled, or biodegradable products instead. This will help reduce the need for more EPS to be manufactured.

Finding Alternatives

Expanded polystyrene foam is all around us: it holds our fast-food orders, cushions fragile deliveries and keeps us warm with coffee cups. Yet it takes 500 years to break down in landfills, where it clogs up space and pollutes the air and water.

Recycling EPS isn’t easy: It’s not accepted curbside and must be dropped off at centers that have the equipment to process it. If that’s not possible, check online for a list of centers and use the What Goes Where search tool to find one near you.

A better option is to seek out eco-friendly alternatives to Styrofoam packaging. Many of these options are biodegradable and help to reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills. You can also find materials that are made from recycled plastic and can be used over again. For example, German scientists have developed a substitute for EPS foam that is made from popcorn. This alternative is affordable, lightweight and biodegradable.

Recycling

The most obvious benefit of recycling EPS is reducing litter. Styrofoam waste takes up space in landfills, where it can stay for hundreds of years. Modern landfills are sealed from oxygen, sunlight and moisture, so plastics like EPS do not break down. This can lead to environmental harm, as the fragments clog streams and rivers and eventually make their way into the ocean.

Some municipalities offer a Styrofoam recycling program, though many require clean, unmarked pieces to be dropped off at a drop-off location or collected during special collection events. It is important to find out what your local program accepts so you do not contaminate it with other materials that are recyclable.

EPS is 95% air, which makes it bulky and difficult to transport before polystyrene foam recycling. To reduce this, some companies use a chemical called limonene to melt the foam into a concentrate that is easier to ship. In other cases, EPS is compressed in a machine known as a densifier to remove the air and create a solid block of general purpose polystyrene pellets.