Styrofoam is one of those materials that has made its way into nearly every aspect of daily life, yet we rarely think about how it’s made and where it goes once it’s served its purpose. And unfortunately, because styrofoam is most often used for single-use items such as to-go containers, disposable coffee cups or as a packing material, the place it normally ends up is the landfill. Which is definitely not a desirable outcome if you’re on a mission to reduce your household waste.
You may be wondering if there’s a better solution for styrofoam, also known as polystyrene. For example, is styrofoam recyclable? Is it biodegradable? Can it be reused? These are all great questions! Skip ahead to quickly find the answers. Or, read on to learn all about styrofoam, including how it’s made, what it’s most often used for, as well as six environmentally friendly polystyrene alternatives.
- What is styrofoam?
- Can you recycle styrofoam?
- How to recycle styrofoam
- 4 ways EPS is impacting the environment
- 6 sustainable alternatives to polystyrene
- Styrofoam recycling FAQs
First up, let’s take a look at what styrofoam is and what it’s most often used for before diving into info about its recyclability.
What is styrofoam?
Expanded polystyrene (EPS), more often referred to as styrofoam, is a petroleum-based product commonly used for disposable packaging and packing peanuts. While styrofoam is actually a brand name for specific foam polystyrene products, it’s common to call any product made from this material styrofoam.
EPS is a popular material for packaging products such as takeout containers, to-go coffee cups, egg cartons and more because it’s cheap, lightweight and a good insulator. EPS is also used in the manufacturing of appliances, automobile parts, building insulation, electronic parts, surfboards, gardening pots and much more.
Can you recycle styrofoam?
While expanded polystyrene (EPS), commonly known as styrofoam, is technically recyclable, most municipal recycling programs do not accept it as cleaning and processing the material is inefficient and costly. However, if your area does accept number 6 plastics you can put styrofoam out with your other recyclables.
So, why is it so inefficient to recycle styrofoam? There actually are multiple reasons - and here are three of them.
- Styrofoam is 90 percent air - Initially, this may seem like a good thing as more air means less plastic, right? However, styrofoam products take up large amounts of space in recycling bins, yet the amount of recyclable material you get is very small.
- Recycling polystyrene is a lengthy process - Once styrofoam has been collected, it needs to be shredded and compressed into an ultra-dense material in order for it to then be transported to another facility. The compacted styrofoam can then be turned into hard plastic items such as crown molding and picture frames, but it cannot be recycled into new styrofoam as the compression removed that possibility.
- There’s no money in recycling styrofoam - And because the recycling business is - after all - a business, there’s no incentive to take up the processing of polystyrene foam products. Often, pursuing polystyrene recycling leads to a loss in funds, since it costs approximately $1000 to recover $200 worth of styrofoam.
How to recycle styrofoam
If you have access to recycling facilities that accepts styrofoam, there are a few things you should know beforehand. First, make sure you’ve cleaned out any food or grease from to-go styrofoam containers.
Next, keep your styrofoam separate from your other recyclables as styrofoam requires a different recycling process. The process of shredding and compressing styrofoam uses special equipment and placing styrofoam with glass or plastic could lead to the whole bin or bag being sent to the landfill.
More information about recycling styrofoam can be found at recyclefoam.org.
4 ways EPS is impacting the environment
Polystyrene is more than just difficult to recycle. Its inability to biodegrade, its past production processes, as well as chemicals used in its creation has long posed risks to humans, animals and the environment. Here are four ways EPS products are harmful to the planet, plus four things you can do to reduce the negative impact.
1. EPS takes hundreds of years to biodegrade
While some scientists have estimated it takes polystyrene foam products 500 years to fully break down, others have put that number closer to 1,000 years. Either way - it’s a really, really long time. And styrofoam in our landfills isn’t just a small problem as three million tons of polystyrene is produced every year in the United States.
Pro tip: Consider frequenting restaurants that offer alternative to-go containers, such as paper or cardboard. And the next time you’re at an establishment that still uses polystyrene, suggest they make the switch.
2. The production of EPS damaged the ozone layer
If you’ve ever heard of CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, you’ve probably also heard that they’re damaging to the ozone layer. CFCs used to be part of the polystyrene production process, although thankfully their use across all industries has been phased out. However, much damage has already been done to the ozone layer and it has only begun to repair itself within the last several years - thanks in large part to the banning of CFCs.
Pro tip: Take the ozone’s self-repair as a positive sign that small changes indeed have huge environmental impacts. Adopted in 1989, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer is proof that with our help, the planet can heal itself.
3. EPS is dangerous to animals and aquatic life
On top of other concerns, such as animals ingesting polystyrene waste, EPS products are often coated in flame-retardants and other chemicals, which can leach into waterways and then be ingested by animals and marine life.
Pro tip: If you come across styrofoam products such as coffee cups, egg cartons and food containers, make sure they're properly disposed of either at a designated styrofoam recycling centers or in the garbage. You can also wash them out and reuse as food containers at home or even for crafts.
4. EPS is a known carcinogen
Perhaps one of the most concerning characteristics of polystyrene is that it’s a human carcinogen. EPS’s base material, which is styrene, has previously been found to increase cancer occurrences in workers from the plastic and rubber industries.
Pro tip: There are many alternatives to polystyrene products, ones that are much friendlier to human health as well as the environment. The more individuals that are aware of, adopting, and requesting these alternatives, the sooner EPS will be a thing of the past.
6 sustainable alternatives to polystyrene
One of the best ways to rid the planet of polystyrene and its negative impacts is to replace it with more sustainable products that work just as well. That could mean simplifying and just using paper or cardboard packaging and single-use items instead, looking to new and innovative solutions, or eliminating disposables altogether. Check out these six alternatives to polystyrene and consider how you can make these small changes in your own daily routine.
1. Reusable containers
Of course, the best alternative to any type of disposable material - whether it’s recyclable or not, is something reusable. And while many restaurants don’t permit customers to bring in their own containers for takeout, some establishments are now allowing this. After all, bringing in a reusable coffee mug has been a common practice for some time - and it’s one you should definitely take advantage of whenever you can.
2. Paper or cardboard products
Perhaps the next best alternative to polystyrene, and in some cases the better option, is paper or cardboard. Paper and cardboard are both highly biodegradable and can even be added to your compost pile in some cases. For example, electric composters such as Lomi allow for paper and cardboard to be added in limited amounts. It then turns these materials into usable dirt for your indoor and outdoor plants!
3. Bamboo products
A growing number of packaging and other single-use items such as single-use plates and cutlery are now being made from bamboo. Bamboo is one of the most sustainable materials on the planet thanks to its fast growing speed and low maintenance requirements. And because it is a plant-material, it can be composted much like paper products.
4. Cornstarch-based products
Packaging made from cornstarch is another sustainable alternative to polystyrene. Also commonly known as PLA products, which stands for polylactic acid, cornstarch-based items degrade to carbon dioxide and water within a year. It can be used as a direct replacement for EPS products and is becoming more common in single-use bags, containers, cups, plates and utensils.
5. Coconut husk packing peanuts
One of the most popular uses for styrofoam is in packing peanuts - those little peanut shaped pieces that fill up empty space around fragile products during the shipping process. While traditional styrofoam peanuts do their job well, just like all the other polystyrene products out there, they don’t biodegrade and are tough to recycle. Thankfully coconut husks, also known as coir, are making a name for themselves as packing peanut replacements. And the best part is they’re fully biodegradable!
6. Number 1 or number 2 plastic products
While using different forms of plastic certainly isn’t an ideal alternative to polystyrene, some plastics are more recyclable than others. All plastics are labeled from 1 to 7, and those bearing the numbers 1 and 2 on them have the highest recyclability. Always check the number on the packaging and make sure to recycle accordingly.
Styrofoam recycling FAQs
As more and more people are trying to live more sustainably, questions around what can and can’t be recycled are becoming more common. And when it comes to styrofoam, the answer isn’t always clear as it depends on where you live and what types of drop-off or curbside recycling programs you have available in your community. Read on to learn the answers to some of the most often asked questions about styrofoam and recycling.
Can styrofoam be reused?
Styrofoam may be difficult to recycle, but it’s very easy to reuse and can be repurposed in a variety of ways. Reuse styrofoam cups and containers for organizing everything from pens and pencils to beads, ribbons, makeup brushes and more. Styrofoam also makes a great craft supply thanks to its rigid nature.
Is styrofoam biodegradable?
While styrofoam technically does break down into smaller pieces, it is not a natural material and thus cannot be broken down by microorganisms. Because styrofoam is a polystyrene-based product, it will never fully decompose and instead will remain in a landfill for hundreds of years.
How long does styrofoam take to decompose?
Styrofoam is not able to fully decompose because the polymer beads it is made of are resistant to photolysis, meaning they aren’t broken down by light the same way as an organic material is. Some experts have estimated styrofoam takes 500 years to break down, while others have estimated it will take thousands of years.
Is styrofoam eco-friendly?
Styrofoam is not an eco-friendly material due to the length of time it takes to decompose and the difficulty in recycling it. Because styrofoam is plastic-based, it can’t be composted and won’t break down in a landfill. Most facilities don’t accept styrofoam because its recycling process is lengthy and expensive.
Now that you know all about styrofoam, including why polystyrene recycling is so challenging, you can begin to reduce the amount of styrofoam in your life. Eliminating packaging that can’t be composted or efficiently recycled is an important part of the journey to living a more sustainable lifestyle, but it’s only one step.
Trying to reduce food waste alongside reducing styrofoam packaging waste is one way to up your green game! Check out Lomi today to see how it can become an integral part of your daily eco-conscious choices.
Written by: Larissa Swayze