Why is Polystyrene/Styrofoam Not Recyclable?

The Problem With Recycling Styrofoam

Are Styrofoam Containers Recyclable?

We are willing to bet that even if your recycling vender accepts plastic type 6 in their recycle bins, they specifically exclude Styrofoam. Why is Styrofoam not recyclable? It’s all the same stuff, isn’t it? Sort of.

Now Styrofoam isn’t really the right word, even though we all use it. Styrofoam is a Dow Chemical Company trademark for a specific type of extruded polystyrene (EPS) foam used only for art supplies and insulation. Since “extruded polystyrene foam” is a little wordy, we’ll call it EPS or polystyrene in this article.

Why Can’t You Recycle Polystyrene?

There are two reasons polystyrene (EPS) is not recyclable or allowed in recycle bins: density and contamination. Polystyrene foam is 95% air so it is not cost-effective to store or ship. It is often contaminated with food or drink, and it is difficult to clean because it is so porous. Remember that recycling uses energy for transport and processing. There is no point in recycling if you use more energy than you save. Instead of wondering “why can’t Styrofoam be recycled?” or looking to your recycle bins, consider these alternatives.

Don’t Use It

Polystyrene foam is a cheap material for insulation and packing material. It’s also just awful for the environment in pretty much every way. Alternate packaging made from other plastics, cardboard, paper and other materials are a better option than EPS. Instead of polystyrene coffee cups, use a washable ceramic mug. Avoid vendors such as restaurants and shippers that still use polystyrene.

Reuse It

If you receive a package full of foam packing peanuts, then send the peanuts to your shipping department. If your company doesn’t ship products, then look around for companies that do since many of them will put out recycle bins to accept donations of packing peanuts.

Preprocess It

There is equipment that process polystyrene into compressed bricks that are cost effective to handle. If your company doesn’t handle enough of the material to make one of these machines worthwhile, then you can probably find a business in your area that has one and is willing to process your EPS. Polystyrene can be recycled into products such as toys and architectural molding, and is used as an amendment to concrete.

Burn It

Since polystyrene is non-biodegradable, some municipal trash collection organizations incinerate it instead of dumping it. The problem is the process uses energy and generates toxic gasses so isn’t much of an alternative to the landfill.

Polystyrene, for all its flaws, is probably never going to go away–and not just because it’s not biodegradable! It’s cheap and versatile so some organizations will always use it. However, rather than wondering “Why can’t styrofoam be recycled?” or trying to find ways to allow it into recycle bins, you are better off looking to minimize or avoid its use. The short-term cost of polystyrene may be low but the long-term damage is enormous.

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5 Responses to The Problem With Recycling Styrofoam

  1. Avatar Areal Human says:

    Polystyrene is only “cheap” because the true cost of reuse/recyling is NOT passed onto the manufacturer. It’s passed onto local governments to deal or not deal with. If everyone wrote their representative demaning true cost of manufacturing and recycling, then we wouldn’t be drowning in it.

  2. Avatar Barry McCall says:

    My community is “going green” in that it is moving from polystyrene to recyclable products for drinks, food-to-go, etc. The temptation is to use up the polystyrene during the conversion. Any suggestions for us?

    • admin admin says:

      Hi Barry,
      Try to move towards compostable containers mainly made with paper. Be cautious with bio-plastics. They do not compose naturally, and it may be challenging to compost as your local collection may not have the facilities.

  3. Pingback: Yes, You Can Recycle Styrofoam – CHEPA website

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