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Is Styrofoam Recyclable? The Answer’s Not That Simple

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It’s estimated that Styrofoam can take up to 30% of the space in US landfills, with Americans alone throwing away 25 billion foam cups every year.

Yes, 25 billion foam cups.

From food containers to cups and packaging, this material is omnipresent in our lives, yet it can be dangerous for both our health and the environment.

So the question is: can Styrofoam be recycled?

Can You Recycle Styrofoam?

Yes, you can recycle Styrofoam, but it can be difficult.

In fact, it's one of the hardest materials to recycle besides VHS tapes and cassette tapes.

One reason why it's difficult to recycle is because it biodegrades slowly and shows significant resistance to photolysis, or decomposition by the action of light. [1] It can take up to 500 years for it to decompose naturally due to that.

So what you can do is try to reuse it by giving it to retailers or couriers who accept packing peanuts or packing popcorn that they can use as shipping materials.

packing foam
recycling styrofoam in san francisco using a condensing machine

Florian feeding blocks of Styrofoam into a condensing machine at GreenCitizen's Burlingame EcoCenter​

Or, whenever possible, take reusable food containers (like these glass food storage containers with eco-friendly bamboo lids) to restaurants instead or avoid using polystyrene containers altogether.

Another reason why Styrofoam is difficult to recycle is because it’s a number 6 plastic, which means that it requires specialized equipment to be broken down successfully.

If your local government has a curbside recycling program that has this specialized equipment, then you can simply put your Styrofoam in the recycling bin. Sadly, not all local governments have those kinds of programs.

Another option is to bring it to recycling centers. Take note though that centers won't accept it if it has been contaminated by food or drink because that makes it impossible to recycle.

 Most recycling centers won't even accept it at all (even if it's uncontaminated) because it's too bulky and therefore, not cost-effective for them.

GreenCitizen, on the other hand, accepts Styrofoam for recycling because we have our own condensing machine that can reduce it to roughly 1/90th of its original volume.

What Is Styrofoam?

Styrofoam is technically the trademarked closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam (XPS) produced by the Dow Chemical Company and introduced to the US market in 1954.

Commonly called “Blue Board,” it’s usually used as insulation for walls, roofs, and foundations.

Dow chemical company's XPS insulation board

However, the word “Styrofoam” also informally refers to various polystyrene foam products (like how we use the word “Kleenex” to refer to all brands of tissues).

The white, rigid, crunchy stuff we use for our craft projects? We’ve become so used to calling it Styrofoam, but it’s actually expanded polystyrene foam or EPS.

This is the one that’s commonly found in takeaway food containers, coffee cups, and packing peanuts.

styrofoam coffee cup

Is Styrofoam Bad For The Environment?

Yes, Styrofoam is bad for the environment. Here’s why:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified styrene, the material that makes up Styrofoam, as a possible human carcinogen.
  • If you simply throw it into your recycling bin it will most likely end up becoming landfill waste, which is bad news for the environment since it takes 500 years for it to decompose. Every day, about 1,369 tons of it are thrown away.
  • When heated, it releases toxic chemicals that can hurt our health. In other words, reheating your restaurant leftovers in a microwave isn’t a good idea.
  • Sunlight exposure causes it to create air pollutants that harm the ozone layer.
  • It breaks into smaller pieces, which can become a choking hazard for scavenging animals, especially marine animals. [2]

Now that you know how dangerous it can be for the environment, we hope that you'll consider replacing your Styrofoam-based products with more eco-friendly, reusable products instead.

If you're a coffee drinker, we recommend that you replace your single-use cup with the Neon Kactus Reusable Glass Coffee Cup.

This is because it uses fully recyclable and sustainable materials.

The company's goal is to help divert millions of disposable products from the landfill every year, which is why we like using their products.

Another good thing about Neon Kaktus is this:

Unlike other brands, it actually delivers good on its promise to prevent leaks and spills with its coffee cup (as many reviewers can attest), because really, who wants coffee all over their shirt?

Another reusable coffee cup that we like is the Panda Cup Eco Friendly Reusable Coffee Cup because of how much it looks like your typical Starbucks cup... but without the guilt.

If you eat a lot of take-out, then you should use these stainless steel Food Storage Containers from JaceBox.

They're airtight and leak-proof so you won't have to worry about your favorite food spilling on the pavement.

This isn't something we can say about Styrofoam take-out containers, to be honest.

Best of all, the company promises that these containers are virtually indestructible. Since they're made from 18/18 grade stainless steel, they won't warp like plastic ones, or break like glass ones.

This means that they're not likely to find their way to our landfills anytime soon.

If you travel a lot and would prefer something that's less bulky, these collapsible Silicone Food Storage Containers from Collapse-it would make for a great replacement to single-use food containers.

The company claims that, since they're made primarily of inert silicone and oxygen, they're better for both your health and the environment.

How To Recycle Styrofoam

1.

First, gather up your old but white, clean, and unmarked Styrofoam and come down to GreenCitizen’s Burlingame EcoCenter where we have a handy condensing machine.

If you don’t have time to drop it off, you may also try our pick up service.

blocks of styrofoam recycling at GreenCitizen
2.

For $5 per 30-gallon bag, the process goes like this:


We’ll feed the white, unsoiled blocks of Styrofoam into the machine, which reduces them to roughly 1/90th of their original volume and spits them out like frozen yogurt.

styrofoam that has been condensed
3.

We can then use the condensed polystyrene foam to make insulation sheets, construction materials, or ceiling molding.

They can also be transformed into surfboards, cameras, jewelry cases, coat hangers, public benches, pots, toys, or picture frames. The possibilities are endless.

molding for the ceiling

As you can see, it’s so much better to repurpose it into something useful instead of letting it sit around as waste.

[EPS] doesn’t biodegrade, it just breaks down, and as it breaks down it just becomes edible to more things and it just leads further down the food chain.


Nathan Murphy, State Director for Environment Michigan

Where To Recycle Styrofoam

greencitizen does styrofoam recycling in san francisco

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, GreenCitizen is open for drop off recycling from Monday-Saturday, 10am until 6pm.

We can also organize pickup recycling services if you’re a business with a large amount of Styrofoam to recycle.

Keep in mind that we can only those that are white, clean, and unmarked. Unfortunately, we can't accept food containers for recycling since they've already been contaminated with oil and other food waste.

If you’re not in the Bay Area, then our Green Directory should help you find the nearest recycling center to you that accepts this material.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified styrene, the material that makes up Styrofoam, as a possible human carcinogen.

FAQ

Can you put Styrofoam in the recycling bin?

Yes, you can put Styrofoam in the recycling bin in some areas. However, there are many local governments who do not accept it in their curbside recycling programs.

How do you dispose of large Styrofoam?

You can dispose of large Styrofoam at a dedicated recycling center like GreenCitizen where we compress it down to 1/90th of its original size.

How do you recycle Styrofoam at home?

You can recycle Styrofoam at home if there is a curbside recycling program in your area that allows you to put it in the recycling bin. You may also donate it to delivery persons that come to your door since they might be able to repurpose it as packing peanuts.

What can you do with old Styrofoam?

You can help turn old Styrofoam into many everyday items including surfboards, ceiling molding, and coat hangers if you recycle it at a dedicated center.

How do you destroy Styrofoam?

You can destroy Styrofoam by dissolving it with acetone, but be warned that it’s dangerous from a health and environmental standpoint because doing so can release toxic carcinogens into the air.

Can Styrofoam egg cartons be recycled?

Yes, Styrofoam egg cartons can be recycled if you take them to a specialized recycling center like GreenCitizen. In some cases, you can put them in a recycling bin but only if your local government has a curbside recycling program.

Will vinegar dissolve Styrofoam?

No, vinegar will not dissolve Styrofoam because vinegar is not hot nor concentrated enough.

What will dissolve Styrofoam?

Acetone will dissolve Styrofoam, though it’s still not ideal for the environment and it becomes difficult if you’ve got a lot to dispose of.

Conclusion

So, is Styrofoam recyclable?

Yes, it is recyclable, but the market for it is very small and very niche that your usual curbside recycling program doesn't often offer services for it.

We at GreenCitizen though can make Styrofoam recycling as cheap and as convenient for you as possible.

If you don’t want to pollute the Earth for 500 years or more, it will do good for you to reuse or recycle it today. Drop it off at our EcoCenter in Burlingame if you're in San Francisco, or search for the nearest recycling center to you using our Green Directory.

Want to know the best way to recycle other items? Let our recycling guides show you how.

Replace your single-use Styrofoam containers with eco-friendly and reusable food and drink containers from our Green Store.


References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4320144/
  2. https://phys.org/news/2019-12-big-problem-ocean-polystyrene-pollution.html


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