Styrofoam Recycling

Styrofoam Recycling

Styrofoam Recycling in the San Franciswco Bay Area
Figure 1: Condensed Styrofoam

GreenCitizen accepts Styrofoam for recycling at our Burlingame EcoCenter. We charge $5 per 30-gallon bag. This fee covers our logistic and processing costs, as well as the cost of the Styrofoam condenser itself.

We accept only clean white Styrofoam that is EPS or XPS number 6. Colored, food contaminated, or dirty Styrofoam is NOT ACCEPTED. If you’re a business, we’re happy to pick up Styrofoam directly from your office.

What Is Styrofoam Anyway?

Figure 2: A GreenCitizen staff member processing some Styrofoam

Styrofoam is the name of a trademarked, extruded, closed-cell polystyrene foam produced by the Dow Chemical Company and introduced to the U.S. market in 1954. However, the word “Styrofoam” informally refers to various polystyrene foam products (similar to the word “Kleenex” informally referring to all facial tissue paper products). EPS (expanded polystyrene) is rigid, closed-cell foam often found in packaging and food takeout containers. XPS (extruded polystyrene), slightly denser and rougher, has similar uses.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified styrene, the material that makes up Styrofoam, as a possible human carcinogen.  Every day, about 1369 tons of Styrofoam ends up in a landfill and it takes 500 years to decompose. When heated, Styrofoam releases toxins. Even exposure to sunlight creates air pollutants that harm landfills and the ozone layer. It’s infamous for breaking into smaller pieces, which can fatally harm mammals or fish that ingest them.

Styrofoam is one of the most frustrating materials that we encounter as recyclers trying to protect the environment. It biodegrades slowly in a landfill and shows significant resistance to photolysis, or decomposition by the action of light. (For comparison, organic material like a banana peel will biodegrade in just two months.) While Styrofoam is 100% recyclable under ideal conditions, most recyclers won’t accept it because its low density takes up significant storage space, which makes for cost-inefficient recycling (bottom line: recyclers lose money).

The best course of action around this environmentally unfriendly material begins with you, the consumer. Bring your own reusable food containers to restaurants and just say no to that inevitable Styrofoam takeout box. Avoid buying products with Styrofoam packaging, including online purchases that must be shipped to you. Biodegradable packaging materials are becoming more readily available (check out this New Yorker article to see how fungus might become the answer).  Nevertheless, Styrofoam is so deeply embedded in our single-use, disposable culture that accumulating it seems inevitable.

How Does GreenCitizen Recycle Your Styrofoam?

You’ve unloaded your bags of EPS Styrofoam at our EcoCenter, happy that you’ve done the right thing for the environment. What will happen to it after you drive away?
GreenCitizen isn’t the first company to address the Styrofoam problem. A number of businesses sell Styrofoam condensing machines, and we work with a company that has one. They feed your white, unsoiled blocks of Styrofoam into the machine, which condenses it to roughly 1/90th of its original volume. The dense polystyrene product emerging from the other end (looking a bit like soft-serve frozen yogurt) becomes a recyclable commodity for producers of recycled plastic pellets.
Yes, it’s still plastic and it still takes far too long to biodegrade. But these pellets have a wide range of possible reuses. They can be turned into insulation sheets and other construction materials. They can also become cameras, clothes hangers, jewelry cases, public benches, pots, toys, and picture frames. They can make a lightweight, buoyant surfboard, and they can be fashioned into the elegant crown molding for detailing the ceilings in your house. The possible applications are endless, and all of them are better than taking up space in a landfill for the next five centuries.
Figure 3: Crown Molding

To learn more, come to our Burlingame EcoCenter and take a close look at some condensed Styrofoam. Bring us all that unwanted packaging material cluttering your closet or garage, and help us recycle this stuff to keep it out of the landfill. Thank you so much for doing your part!

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