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Styrofoam surrounds us: it makes up our disposable cups and plates, packing materials, egg cartons, crafts, insulation, portable freezers… the list goes on into seeming infinity. Considering how much of it we use, it makes sense to ask the question: is styrofoam recyclable? In other words, is this material that we use every day of our lives able to be reused? If not, what alternatives should we be using to reduce waste and humanity’s environmental footprint?
To answer all these questions, we need to start with a deep dive into styrofoam: what it is, what the different types are, and what recycling options are out there, as well as some alternative materials we could be using instead that are more beneficial for us and the environment.
What Exactly Is Styrofoam?
We commonly think of styrofoam as being anything made out of that stiff, plastic foam that’s in our takeout boxes and packing peanuts. But “Styrofoam” is actually the trademarked name of a type of insulation manufactured by the Dow Chemical Company, or DuPont. “Styrofoam” is a specific type of foam called XPS, which stands for “extruded polystyrene.” It refers to the method by which this type of foam is made – through a closed-cell extrusion process. EPS – the type we’re used to seeing everyday in plates, cups, and the like – stands for “expanded polystyrene” and is made by expanding the polystyrene. It’s much lighter and thinner than XPS.
So what’s polystyrene? It’s a type of resin that can be processed into a foam-like structure or left as hard plastic. It’s extremely stiff and versatile.
Officially known as “Styrofoam” and trademarked by the Dow Chemical Company, XPS stands for “extruded polystyrene” and is strong and thick. It’s typically used for insulation in buildings.
The type is what we traditionally think of when we think of styrofoam. It stands for “expanded polystyrene” which refers to the process of expanding polystyrene cells. This type is thinner, lighter, and more brittle. You’ll meet it most often as everyday polystyrene containers like foam dishes, takeout boxes, egg cartons, cups, etc.
Is Styrofoam Environmentally Friendly?
The two different types of styrofoam are equal in terms of how friendly they are for the environment. Which is to say, they’re not environmentally friendly. Below are three of the main reasons why.
1. The Base Material Of Styrofoam Causes Cancer
For one thing, styrofoam’s base material, styrene, is a human carcinogen and therefore highly dangerous to people who inhale it or whose skin is exposed to it. These kinds of interactions with styrene are most likely to occur in factories where products that contain styrene, such as styrofoam, are manufactured. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, it can also leech out of polystyrene containers, although the levels of styrene that ultimately end up in your food are low.
2. It Takes (Literally) Hundreds Of Years To Biodegrade
Part of what makes a material environmentally friendly is its ability to biodegrade, or turn back into its natural elements and seamlessly integrate with the natural world. Polystyrene doesn’t do that very well, and that’s an understatement. In fact, for years experts have estimated that it will take thousands of years for polystyrene to fully biodegrade. A study published in 2019 by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute did show that sunlight has the potential to degrade styrofoam at a much faster rate, but this method has yet to be implemented on a large scale. Meanwhile, all that styrofoam is piling up in our dumps, our cities, and our oceans at a rate faster than we can get rid of it.
3. It Helped Create A Hole In The Ozone Layer
The ozone layer, as you may remember from your high school biology class, is a layer of ozone in the Earth’s stratosphere that normally absorbs most of the harmful radiation coming off the sun. Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, are natural substances like carbon and hydrogen that can actually damage the ozone layer. Damage to the ozone layer can lead to the creation of a hole through which dangerous UV rays can pass from the sun onto the surface of the Earth unchecked.
CFCs used to be used during the manufacturing process of styrofoam. Though this is no longer accepted practice when producing styrofoam, its effects were and are still harmful to global environmental safety.
4. It Endangers Wildlife
Styrofoam represents a threat to animals, especially those that scavenge food from landfills. As styrofoam can break into small parts animals usually swallow it and often choke.
How To Recycle Styrofoam
Even though it’s not biodegradable, styrofoam can still be recycled. But of course, doing so is not as easy as sorting it into the nearest blue recycle bin and forgetting about it. The truth is that recycling styrofoam, whether it’s EPS or XPS, is expensive, and therefore a lot of recycling facilities don’t do it.
In order for EPS foam to be recycled, it must first be densified: shredded and broken up into tiny little pieces. These pieces must then be collected and pressed into logs, which can then be used in the manufacturing process for things like crown molding.
The challenge to recycle EPS foam begins with the sorting. EPS foam breaks so easily that the little pieces are hard to gather up. And it can’t be put into the blue recycling bin because the recycling process for things like paper or glass is different for styrofoam.
XPS foam recycling works the same way. However, because XPS foam is stronger, it’s harder to shred. Therefore, it requires bigger, more expensive machines to break it down. So while finding a recycler for EPS foam is difficult, finding a recycler for XPS foam is even harder.
The bottom line is it’s possible to recycle styrofoam, but the scarcity of recycling centers that are capable of handling this tough material makes it a huge challenge.
Can Styrofoam Be Reused?
There is some good news about styrofoam, though: while it’s hard to recycle, it’s easy to reuse. You can reuse it as packing material for your own packages, craft projects, plant holders, stuffing, and anything else you can think of that you need around your home or business. And on a larger scale, manufacturing companies can use the recycled styrofoam logs we mentioned earlier in the article as a material to make crown molding, picture frames, and more.
What Are Some Alternative Materials To Styrofoam?
Still, though, there’s probably more styrofoam in your trash than you can imagine how to reuse. And the sad truth is, unless you have a recycling program in your area that accepts this material, it’s just going to build up waste in the dump that may not decompose for thousands of years.
So what can you do? You can start using alternative, recyclable materials such as the ones we listed below:
Use paper plates, cups, and packing material, it’s biodegradable. Here you can find some more great biodegradable materials for plates. Also using paper for void fill in packaging is a much more eco-friendly solution than using styrofoam or polystyrene pearls.
Bamboo is biodegradable, therefore it’s a great material to use for disposable items, such as disposable plates, mugs, utensils or also food containers.
- Cornstarch based packaging
This material is eco-friendly, based on polylactic acid (PLA), which is made from cornstarch, and degrades to carbon-dioxide and water within a relatively short time (less than a year). This material is used as a direct substitute of styrofoam in the form of disposable plates, cups, food containers, utensils and also as void fill. You
- Number 1 Or 2 Recyclable Plastic
Items made out of plastic usually feature a recycling symbol with a number inside it. This number number in the recycling symbol tells you what kind of plastic the product is made out of. The most recyclable numbers are 1 and 2. Use containers and disposable cups, plates, and dinnerware that bear the number 1 or number 2 recycle symbol. It’s not ideal but still better than styrofoam.
- Reusable containers
Use a reusable lunch box. Even for takeaway, if you pick up the food yourself, you can bring your own lunch box. Also use a reusable coffee mug for takeaway coffee.
If you are interested in the risks of other plastics and how they can or cannot be recycled, please check out our writing about which plastics are safe.
Conclusion: Is Styrofoam Recyclable? Yes, But It’s Hard To Do
As we learned earlier in the article, polystyrene foam comes in two basic types: EPS (expanded polystyrene) and XPS (extruded polystyrene). EPS foam is used in many of the items we use everyday, such as disposable dinnerware. XPS foam, on the other hand, is primarily used as insulation in buildings. They’re manufactured differently and for their own unique purpose: EPS is meant to be thin and flexible, while XPS is meant to be thick and strong.
Both types – EPS and XPS foam – are recyclable. But you may have trouble finding a recycling center that is capable of processing it. This is because the process of breaking down these materials is labor intensive and requires expensive machinery. In fact, XPS foam requires larger and more powerful machines to break down because of their thicker, more rigid composition than EPS foam.
Aside from finding a recycling program that accepts EPS or XPS foam, there are two other things you can do with styrofoam: 1) reuse it, or 2) use the alternative recyclable materials we discussed in the previous section as much as possible. This way you reduce the amount of waste you’re producing and that’s getting left in your city dump to rot over the course of thousands of years. People who feel strongly about doing their part to create a healthy, ethically sustainable environment for themselves and future generations on Earth should consider one or both of those two options.
Q&A About Styrofoam Recycling
Below are some common questions and answers about styrofoam, its impact on the environment, and its recyclability.
Can I put styrofoam in the recycle bin?
No, you can’t. The materials you put in the recycle bin are processed differently from styrofoam. Not all recycling centers have the machinery to recycle styrofoam. If you’re not sure if they accept it, it’s best to store your extra polystyrene foam separate from the rest of your recyclable materials, and then call your local recycling center.
Can you microwave styrofoam?
Yes, but according to Healthline, you should only microwave styrofoam products that bear the label “microwave safe.” Products with that label have been tested by the FDA to ensure their safety. If it does not specifically say “microwave safe” on it, then heating it up could release the styrofoam’s base material, styrene, which is a carcinogen.
How do I dispose of styrofoam?
Ideally, you should save your styrofoam and reuse it or deliver it to a recycling facility that can process it. However, if you must throw it away, break it down into small pieces so it can degrade more easily.
How long does it take for styrofoam to decompose?
Experts estimate that styrofoam will take thousands of years to decompose on its own.
Is styrofoam plastic?
Styrofoam is a form of plastic; however, unlike traditional clear plastic, it is not easily recyclable. It cannot be included in the same recycle bin as clear plastic.
Can you burn styrofoam?
You should never burn styrofoam. Burning polystyrene foam can release its base material, styrene, which is cancerous to humans.
Is styrofoam toxic?
Styrofoam is not toxic on its own. But if it breaks down into its base material, styrene, through extreme heat, it can become extremely toxic. Styrene has been found by scientists to be a human carcinogen.
Can you heat up styrofoam?
You should only heat up styrofoam in the microwave, and only then if it is labelled “microwave safe.”
Is styrofoam biodegradable?
Not really, it degrades only over an extremely long period of time – to the tune of hundreds of years. Other, faster biodegrading processes such as exposure to sunlight, have been explored, but none of them have been implemented on a large scale. The problem of tons of foam waste lying around in our dumps and oceans for the foreseeable future remains a concern.
Is styrofoam eco-friendly?
Styrofoam is not eco-friendly. It takes an extremely long time to biodegrade, is not easily recyclable, and was first manufactured using CFCs, which are known to damage the Earth’s protective ozone layer. In addition to that its base material is heavily toxic which can be released if burnt or overheated.