Can “Styrofoam” be recycled?
If you get take-out, pick up eggs from the grocery store or receive packages in the mail, you most likely end up with what you think is “Styrofoam™.” Styrofoam™ is a name trademarked for a specific variation of expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging. True Styrofoam™ is designed for use in building insulation. The EPS or foam polystyrene you’re used to seeing is used in egg cartons, to-go cups, packaging peanuts, and in blocks used to protect electronics and appliances in shipping.
So, now that you have this EPS in your home, what do you do with it? Maybe you’ve heard EPS is not recyclable but have also heard it lasts forever in a landfill. But you flip it over and there it is, a recycling symbol with a number six inside.
Although you may think it’s recyclable because of the chasing arrows symbol, the truth is, with some exceptions, those foam egg cartons, meat trays, peanuts, or any other type of EPS are not recyclable in your curbside recycling cart. There are some exceptions, but very few local governments accept them in curbside recycling.
In most curbside recycling programs, EPS is part of a longer list of recycling contaminants (items that cannot be recycled curbside, but are placed in the recycling cart anyway). These unaccepted materials do more harm than good when recycled curbside by potentially causing entire loads of recycling to be rejected and making it harder to recover accepted recyclable material. Find out what other materials could be causing harm to the recycling process here.
“EPS”– what is it?
We now know that EPS is not generally recyclable in curbside recycling programs, but then why does it have a recycling symbol on it?
EPS is made from petroleum, like most plastics. Since polystyrene is comprised of petroleum, it does have properties that make it technically recyclable. But EPS is also comprised of more than 90% air, which makes it lightweight and bulky.
These properties mean the collection and transportation impacts of recycling EPS often outweigh the environmental benefits. Because of this, recycling EPS is only efficient when it can be ground and then compacted into a denser shape. Most recycling facilities don’t have the equipment needed to do this, so to recycle EPS, it has to be taken to a special location where it can be densified.
Here is where EPS CAN be recycled!
There are some locations where EPS can be recycled. The Foodservice Packaging Institute has more information on foam recycling and locations that accept different types of EPS. In addition, some shipping stores will take back packaging peanuts for reuse in the store.
Some local governments and recycling companies have drop-off locations specifically for foam packaging. Check with your local government to see if there are any locations near you, or if your program is an exception and it is accepted curbside.
Pretty sure you already know what to throw in your recycling container? Check your recycling knowledge here.