Styrofoam recycling rules

Can You Actually Recycle Styrofoam?

A lot of people have asked themselves for many years whether styrofoam is recyclable or not. When the pandemic came, most people were even forced to order all kinds of products online, get take-out, and use styrofoam cups or boxes a lot more, which made this question even more popular. So what can you do with styrofoam left behind either at the workplace or in your home? Here’s what experts say about it:

Can you recycle “Styrofoam”?

You will probably end up with unneeded Styrofoam when you receive packages by mail, get eggs from the grocery store, er get take-out food. Styrofoam™ is a name trademarked for a certain type of expanded polystyrene packaging (EPS). The real purpose of Styrofoam is building insulation. The foam polystyrene or EPS you are likely to see when ordering a package, a to-go cup, or egg cartons, and even in big blocks used to protect the shipping of appliances and electronics is not all that much different.

So what can you actually do when you end up with a bunch of EPS in your home? You might have heard that EPS is not recyclable. Some people even go as far as to say that it will last forever when thrown in a landfill. But as soon as you flip over any bigger piece, you might notice that it has a recycling symbol with a certain number in it.

The truth is that most EPS shouldn’t go in the recycling cart outside your home, regardless of whether it comes from peanuts, meat trays, egg cartons, or shipped products, even though it might have the three chasing arrows on it. Most governments won’t accept these products in the curbside recycling bins, although there are very few exceptions.

You might also like my articles on whether you can recycle hangers, rubber, and electronic waste.

EPS is actually added more often to the list of recycling contaminants when it comes to curbside recycling programs, which are items that even though are thrown in the recycling card, cannot be recycled. These materials will usually do a lot of harm to the recycled curbside materials because they can get whole loads rejected from the process, which will make it harder to recycle materials in general.

What is “EPS”?

Styrofoam BoxesSo by now, you should understand that EPS is not a recyclable material that can be added to the common curbside recycling programs. Then what is it with the recycling symbol that is usually printed on this material?

Like most plastics, petroleum is used to make EPS as well. Having petroleum in its composition, makes polystyrene recyclable, at least technically. The problem is that EPS has over 90% air in its composition, which is why it is not only bulky but also lightweight.

These features of EPS make it a product that isn’t worth transporting, its impact on transportation overweighing any environmental benefits recycling would bring. This is why it only makes sense to recycle EPS when it can be made into a denser shape through grounding and compacting. As most recycling facilities won’t usually have the needed equipment for this type of job, recycling EPS also involves taking it to a special location where its densification can be done.

This material won’t be expandable after processing because of how hard it is compacted, which is why it will most often be turned into items made of harder plastic, like:

  • Crown moldings
  • Park benches
  • Picture frames
  • And so on

So this means that this process doesn’t actually recycle styrofoam, but gets it repurposed. Nowadays, some big recycling companies are trying to figure out a way of using chemicals to recycle styrofoam back into its old form by breaking down polystyrene, but this is still an idea in its early stages.

So What Should You Do With Styrofoam?

Of course, there are quite a few locations where you can take EPS to have it recycled. You can find all the information you need on locations that accept EPS of different types and foam recycling in general on the Foodservice Packaging Institute website. You can also ask store staff if you can return the wrappers when buying products wrapped in styrofoam because most will take back packaging materials to reuse in the store.

There are also recycling companies and local governments that will have locations specifically designated for foam packaging drop-off. It’s very important to ask your government before adding these materials to your curbside recycling bin. Who knows? maybe there is an exception to the curbside rules in your locations. If not, at least they can point you toward a location that takes these materials around you.

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