Can You Recycle Styrofoam? (Explained & Solved!)

In 2018, the U.S. produced 292.4 million tons of solid waste, but only 69 million tons of materials were recycled that same year. The problem is because of single-use products made with components such as styrofoam, which are tossed as soon as they’ve served their purpose.

So what should you do with styrofoam? Throw away or recycle it? Read on to find out if you can recycle styrofoam properly (if you can at all), what to use instead, and how to repurpose old styrofoam.

What is Styrofoam?

Styrofoam is a lightweight material made from polystyrene, which is a petroleum-based product made from harmful chemicals such as styrene and benzene. Though it is toxic, it is still used in everyday packaging, because it is inexpensive to produce and readily available on the market.

Common uses of styrofoam:

  • Packing peanuts and other packaging materials
  • Food and drink holders
  • Arts and crafts tools
  • Insulation
  • Flotation
  • Cake displays
  • And much more

Styrofoam is actually a trademarked name for a variety of expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging, closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam (XPS) produced by Dow Chemical Company and introduced to the US market in 1954.

You might have heard it is recyclable, and then looked at the symbol on the styrofoam item to see a number 6 outlined with a recycling symbol. So can you really recycle it?

Is Styrofoam Recyclable?

Yes, styrofoam is recyclable. But, not everywhere.

Can I Put Styrofoam in the Recycling Bin?

Probably not, but check with your locality.

How Can I Recycle Styrofoam?

Contact your local government to find out whether types of foam are permitted for curbside pickup at your location. There might also be a drop-off program for styrofoam.

The Drop-off Program

Step 1: Take the styrofoam to your local drop-off center. Make sure it is clean, or it won’t be recycled.

Step 2: The materials are collected at the drop-off center by a truck.

Step 3: The materials are delivered to a sorting facility.

Step 4: The foam is kept separate from other materials.

Step 5: The foam is delivered into a grinder.

Step 6: The ground foam is put into a densifier, which compacts the loose foam into solid blocks for transportation.

Step 7: The blocks are sold to a third party that will find a use for them.

The Curbside Program

Step 1: Place the foam into your recycling bin. Make sure it is clean or it won’t be able to be recycled.

Step 2: The materials are collected curbside by a truck.

Step 3: The materials are delivered to a sorting facility.

Step 4: The foam is sorted and separated from other materials.

Step 5: The foam is delivered into a grinder.

Step 6: The ground foam is put into a densifier, which compacts the loose foam into solid blocks for transportation.

Step 7: The blocks are sold to a third party, which will find a use for them.

Is Styrofoam Recyclable in all States?

Because styrofoam requires an innovative type of recycling (chemical recycling), and its yield isn’t very high because of frequent contamination with organic materials, the market for it is very small. Thus, styrofoam might not be recyclable in your state.

So don’t put styrofoam into your recycling bin if you’re not sure whether your local program takes it. It could cause serious damage to your county’s recycling equipment, and it could even result in injuries to recycling centers’ staff if it gets tangled into machinery.

Styrofoam is the hardest material to recycle, side by side with cassettes and VHS tapes. One reason it is difficult to recycle is because it takes a very long time to biodegrade. It is also extremely resistant to photolysis, which is the process of decomposition under the influence of light. It can take up to 500 years to decompose styrofoam because of these factors.

If your local recycling center has a recycling program with the specialized equipment it takes to process styrofoam, then you can put it in the recycling bin once you’ve used it. Unfortunately, and because of the above reasons, not all local recycling centers have those kinds of programs.

What to Do with Old Styrofoam?

  1. Packing Peanuts: Instead of throwing old styrofoam away, crush it into pieces and use it as packing peanuts when sending out fragile packages to friends and family.
  2. Stuff Saggy Beanbags: In the 2000s, beanbags were all the rage. Everyone has an old beanbag with half its stuffing missing gathering dust in their garage. Crush old styrofoam into tiny pieces and use it to stuff an old beanbag or pillow.
  3. Tighten Loose Screws: It is infuriating when a screw is slightly loose. A brilliant solution to that common problem is to thread the screw into a small piece of styrofoam, then screw it back into the hole. The styrofoam will fill up the extra space and make it fit again.
  4. Styrofoam Cup Organizer for Small Items: Use your old styrofoam coffee takeout cups to create handy little organizers for small items. Clean them then use them to organize drawers or a tool space: great for organizing screws, nails, paperclips, pins…
  5. DIY Plant Pots: Use old styrofoam containers to create little seed starters and plant pots for your plants. Fill up with good quality soil and drill a hole underneath to help the water drain out, then put some seeds a fingernail length underneath the surface of the soil. Water for a few days and you will see sprouts appear. What a great way to make use of a styrofoam container that would otherwise have been thrown into a landfill! You can even collect styrofoam containers from friends and create little seed starter kits for them for sustainable birthday presents.

How is Styrofoam Recycled?

It requires an innovative recycling program:

First, a compactor called a densifier compact the styrofoam into a denser material, which is easier to handle. Foam products are over 90% air. A 48-foot load of foam polystyrene (styrofoam) only weighs approximately 16,000 pounds. A truckload of densified styrofoam, on the other hand, weighs over 40,000 pounds.

Chemical Recycling vs. Mechanical Recycling

Traditionally, recyclable materials are processed using mechanical recycling. However, styrofoam recycling uses a process that takes the plastic back to its original state, called styrene monomer.

Is Styrofoam Bad for the Environment?

Yes. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified styrene, the material that Styrofoam is partly made up of, as a potential carcinogen substance for humans. Tossing styrofoam in your recycling bin without finding out if it’s recyclable or not, in most cases will ensure it ends up in the landfill. This has grave consequences: styrofoam takes around 500 years to decompose.

Every day, around 1,369 tons of it are thrown away, which is a lot for a product made up of 90% air. When styrofoam is heated by the sun or by electronic devices, it releases chemicals that are toxic mostly, thus bad for your health. Think twice before you heat up your leftovers in a styrofoam container.

Sunlight exposure to the foam produces pollutants and harmful chemicals that can damage the layer of ozone. It also is very easy to break into small pieces, which become extremely dangerous for animals, especially in the ocean. They can choke and block their airways with styrofoam.

What are the Alternatives to Styrofoam?

Because styrofoam is so bad for the environment, great alternatives to all its uses have been developed, such as:

  1. Plantable packaging
  2. InCycle cups
  3. Bamboo Fiber Eco Bowls
  4. EarthAware biodegradable plastic
  5. Edible cups

You can easily swap out your disposable styrofoam coffee container for a durable, reusable container, available at any store. Check out your local sustainable stores for practical and pleasing options.

When eating takeout, bring your own containers and save the hassle of having to bring your styrofoam container to a recycling drop-off location. Tupperware or stainless steel containers are much more leakproof than styrofoam. They will also be far better for your health: you won’t have to ingest all the harmful chemicals that styrofoam releases when heated.

If you use styrofoam often for packaging, there are also many alternatives to foam packing peanuts like:

  1. Corn-based packaging
  2. Starch-Based loose-fill materials
  3. Molded fiber or pulp
  4. Biodegradable foam
  5. Mushroom-based Styrofoam

Final Thoughts on Recycling Styrofoam

Depending on your area, you may be able to recycle styrofoam. If not, there are many creative ways to use old styrofoam. Just remember, it is a harmful product to the environment, so call your local recycling center before putting anything in your recycling bins. Some specialized companies also offer to pick up your foam materials and recycle them: get in touch with them to find out where you can drop off your discarded styrofoam.

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