Styrofoam, technically polystyrene foam (styrofoam is a brand name), is indeed recyclable. Most municipal programs, however, will not accept it. A better question would be, should I recycle my styrofoam?
Facts about polystyrene
Polystyrene is a #6 plastic. It is commonly used to make foam cups and food containers, clamshell containers, cd jewel cases, packaging peanuts and even in some explosives. Of all the plastics, an argument can be made that polystyrene is the least environmentally friendly.
- Polystyrene is made from petroleum which is not a renewable resource.
- Polystyrene’s primary components are benzene and styrene. Both are known carcinogens. Prolonged exposure to styrene by workers in plastics manufacturing has led to problems with the central nervous system and digestive tract.
- According to the EPA the manufacture of polystyrene is the fifth largest creator of hazardous waste in the U.S. The process releases hydrocarbons into the air which, when combined with nitrogen oxide and sunlight, produces tropospheric ozone.
- When heated, as in a microwave, it realeases the same toxins into the food it contains, which is then ingested and absorbed into the body.
- Polystyrene is highly flammable.
- Polystyrene takes thousands of years to degrade.
- When burned properly in an industrial process, it produces carbon dioxide, water and carbon soot, along with a mixture of other ‘volatile compounds’. But when burned at lower temperatures, such as in a burn pile or in a home fireplace, it produces a host of toxins including aromatic hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide.
Given all the downsides to this material, why is it so common? The upside to polystyrene is that it’s durable, lightweight and inexpensive to produce. It is also a very efficient insulator. The term ‘styrofoam’ is actually a trademark of the Dow Chemical Corporation which applies to housing insulation.
Can polystyrene foam be recycled?
Yes, but there is alot of debate as to whether recycling isn’t actually more detrimental to the environment than landfilling this substance.
Recycling polystyrene is not a closed-loop process. What this means is that we don’t recycle styrofoam into other styrofoam products. Instead it is recycled into other plastics, most of which are not themselves recyclable. In the process even more resources are expended and more pollutants released.
Furthermore, most recyclers don’t want to handle polystyrene. It’s lightweight and takes up alot of space. The markets for recycled polystyrene have been unstable and processors often can’t get a good market price for the material.
If you do wish to recycle polystyrene, your best bet will probably be to find a manufacturer willing to take back their product. Dart Container is one such company.
Rather than promote more polystyrene recycling, a better answer is to promote alternatives to polystyrene in the first place. One such option is bio-plastics which are plant based and biodegradeable. Another is to replace many of these products with paper alternatives, particularly in the food handling industry. There are also other existing plastics which are much easier to recycle and produce fewer toxins in the manufacturing process, such as PET, HDPE and LDPE.
Options for reuse
It’s hard to avoid purchasing products made from polystyrene foam, but you can reuse alot of them.
- Packaging peanuts can be used over and over again.
- Check with craft shops to dispose of foam packaging. Many crafts use foam as a base.
- Small particles can be mixed in with potting soil to aid with drainage in houseplants.
For more information on polystyrene, visit the following sources:
The Earth Resource Foundation: http://www.earthresource.org/campaigns/capp/capp-styrofoam.html
The American Plastics Council: http://plastics.americanchemistry.com/