You Asked, We Answered: Is Styrofoam Recyclable?

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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.

Also, recycling Styrofoam is hard because it’s a #6 plastic, which is known to be one of the hardest plastics to recycle.

But the question remains: can Styrofoam be recycled?

Can You Recycle Styrofoam?

Yes, you can recycle Styrofoam, and you can read on to find out how and where you can do so.

However, bear in mind that recycling this material can be difficult.

One reason is that 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 to try giving it to some retailers and couriers (such as UPS) who accept packing peanuts or packing popcorn that they can reuse for shipping items.

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, you should consider taking reusable food containers to restaurants or avoiding polystyrene packing materials instead.

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

Some local governments have curbside recycling programs that have this equipment, but a lot of them don’t.

You can also bring it to recycling centers. However, while it is technically 100% recyclable, most recycling centers don’t want to take it because it’s too bulky (i.e. not cost-effective).

GreenCitizen, however, 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 shipping materials.

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.
  • It usually ends 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]

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 can 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 san francisco bay area

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 it to recycle.

Keep in mind that we can only recycle Styrofoam that is white, clean, and unmarked.

If you’re not in the Bay Area, then the Earth911 Directory should help you find your nearest recycling center that accepts Styrofoam.

We’ve become so used to calling it Styrofoam, but it’s actually expanded polystyrene foam or EPS.

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 local curbside recycling scheme available in your area. If there’s none, then you may not be able to recycle it at home and you'll need to drop it off at a specialized center (or have it picked up at your home by that center).

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, Styrofoam is recyclable, but the market for it is very small and niche that most curbside programs don’t often offer services for it.

However, as much as Styrofoam recycling is difficult, GreenCitizen’s services make it as cheap and convenient 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 your Styrofoam today.


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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You Asked, We Answered: Is Styrofoam Recyclable?
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You Asked, We Answered: Is Styrofoam Recyclable?
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It can be dangerous for our health and the environment but getting rid of it is not easy. So, is styrofoam recyclable? Read on to find out.
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22 Comments on “You Asked, We Answered: Is Styrofoam Recyclable?

    What’s Happening i’m new to this, I stumbled upon this
    I’ve found It absolutely helpful and it has aided me out loads.
    I hope to give a contribution & aid other customers like its helped me.
    Good job.

    WELL IF IT RECYCLABLE WHY IS IT SO EXPENSIVE TO RECYCLE IT AND SO FAR?

    UPS will take popcorn styrofoam for free. I separate it (styrofoam from biodegradable) and UPS has always taken it.

    Do you accept large volume styrofoam packaging materials? What would be the maximum volume allowable?

    Greetings, I live in Oklahoma City and I wish it were economical here to recycle “styrofoam” in all the varieties of ways it comes, e.g. packing material, disposable plates and cups. What I think may be germane to the discussion of disposal of these nusance materials is for governments to charge a disposal fee, much like we do for tires, and at one time glass bottles and aluminum cans. As much as we find it distasteful to be “taxed” every which way we turn, it may be the only solution to curbing the amount of waste we generate every day. The government money could be spent on supporting innovations in waste recycling.

    It looks that so many people have such problem to deal with Styrofoam.
    For reusing to make photo frames, normally for densified Styrofoam. If you always have large quantity of densify Styrofoam into densified block or melting material.

    Hi Jermaine,

    Yes, we do offer a Styrofoam pickup service! There will be a $200 pickup fee, plus $50 for every gaylord (48 x 40 x 36″ cardboard container) of Styrofoam. To lower the pickup fee, you may add qualifying items for recycling. Please go here to schedule a pickup: https://greencitizen.com/business-recycling-pickup-items

    I’d like to know if you can sell condensed eps for export to over-seas country, should be full container base.

    So, what to do with the food containers? Asia has many of them. Could they be cleaned?

    WE HAVE SOLID STYROFOAM BEING ACCUMULATED ; AND WE ALSO HAVE
    SOME “POPCORN” STYROFOAM;

    NORMALLY WE JUST BRING IT TO THE DUMPSTER; IT IS EXPENSIVE;

    HOW TO DO IT LESS EXPENSIVE?

    Hi Susan,

    We can accept clean, white #6 styrofoam for recycling.

    Do you recycle large pieces that were the core of a spa cover?

    I live in an area where styrofoam is not accepted by the recyclers who handle curbside pickup. I realize that my suggestion does not solve the long-term issuevproblem of what to with packing matetisls but I take the foam peanuts and air-filled packets to my local shipping store to reuse.

    i am from bengaluru, india. I am impressed by the initiatives to make San Fransisco zero waste city by 2020(?) by all. I am involved in efforts to make my city clean and polluton free. Incidentally, Bengaluru is clubbed with SF in a sister city initiative with the intention of co-0peration in many fields, cleanliness being just one.
    Styrofoam, as in all cities is a nuisance waste occupying space in waste transport vehicles as also land fill. You mention that you have acquired a machine to process EPS. Can you please tell me who supplies the equipment so that I can try to acquire one for my city.

    thank you in advance

    shankar

    This information was a great find, thanks for your imput.

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  5. RE/2013 May May 22 Jake Hanft article: where do you get the “1000 years” figure for decomposition of EPS (reference)? Perhaps when it is buried in a landfill and protected from sun, water, air and surface microorganisms.

    Also, what “ceiling moulding” company do you sell to; is it Timbron (Stockton)? Certainly food contamination isn’t an issue for them, although EXTRUDED-PS might not be so compatable with rigid EPS mix. Have you looked into lightweight concrete (air entrainment) uses. We must have companies that do this in California. Related to that is making of internal forms for concrete and stucco building. OK if these last 1000 years and they should be able re-blow any type of PS (expanded or not) for this purpose; solid (clear), EPS, XPS and “loose fill peanuts”. Why not?

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