Styrofoam accounts for 30% of space in many landfill sites. The widespread usage of Styrofoam has led to 25 billion cups entering landfills annually. However, the material is used for more than just cups – it’s also used for food trays, packaging and much more.
However, while foam recycling is an option, is it safe, practical and viable?
We’re going to take a look at the process of recycling Styrofoam and learn why it may be in your best interest to use the material less.
Is Styrofoam Recyclable?
Polystyrene recycling is possible, although many people think that it is not. The main issue with this material is that it’s primarily air. In fact, around 98% of the material is air, so when it’s recycled, the process is difficult to make profitable, although not impossible.
Unfortunately, since foam recycling isn’t profitable, less than 1% of it is recycled.
However, there have been some breakthroughs in this area. Rennueva is contracted by many corporations to handle the process of recycling Styrofoam. The company operates out of Mexico City and turns the material into small pellets, which some companies are turning into frames.
Rennueva is working to turn this technology into a way to make cutlery and plates.
The problem is that even with these great innovations in this area, only a very small fraction of Styrofoam can be recycled. Businesses that are finding ways to reuse the material don’t have the capacity to recycle enough material to offset the immense usage of Styrofoam worldwide.
Note: Many Styrofoam containers and cups have the recycling symbol on them. Unfortunately, the symbol is misleading because it’s not plausible to recycle. Resale values have also fallen from $0.20 a pound for the material to just $0.06 a pound on the resale market, making it almost impossible to recycle in a profitable way.
Why is Styrofoam Difficult to Recycle?
Styrofoam recycling needs to be profitable for the recycling company, but the process of foam recycling requires:
Immense cleaning because the foam is porous
Larger machines because most foam is big and bulky
Specialized equipment to breakdown the material properly
Many people don’t realize that Styrofoam is actually number 6 plastic. While cheap to produce, it’s a plastic that is notoriously difficult to recycle and should be avoided whenever possible.
If you have curbside recycling in your area, the chances are good that you cannot recycle foam because most facilities cannot process it.
Does Styrofoam Breakdown?
Foam recycling isn’t viable due to a lack of profitability, and the material also doesn’t break down or degrade over time. Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is used in disposable coffee cups, takeout containers and most fragile items that are packed in boxes.
Since the material doesn’t breakdown over time or degrade, it will continue to stay in landfills well past your lifetime.
Worldwide, 2.3 million tons of EPS end up in landfills and may last for 500 years before decomposing.
While the material will eventually decompose, the length of time it takes to degrade results in the material being classified as non-biodegradable waste.
Additionally, chemicals from the Styrofoam leach into the ground, impacting the environment even more.
Options the Average Person Can Take to Reduce the Impact of Styrofoam
Styrofoam usage may not be 100% in your control. If you purchase a television, for example, the unit is almost certainly packed in the material to reduce the risk of breakage. The options that the average person has to reduce the impact of Styrofoam are:
Try recycling. Since most recycling facilities do not process Styrofoam, it’s best to contact your local municipal waste office to see whether any facilities in your area do handle the material. If they do recycle Styrofoam, you can opt to bring all of the waste to these areas for recycling.
Reduce usage. Ideally, if you want to make the best impact possible and lower the amount of Styrofoam in landfills, you may want to change your normal habits.
If you’re a business that uses foam extensively, it’s crucial to find ways to reduce your reliance on the material. There are many alternative options available, such as corn-based packaging material that will reduce your company’s usage of Styrofoam.
However, many businesses opt for Styrofoam because it’s notoriously cheap to produce and reduces overhead.
Tips to Reduce Styrofoam Usage
As a consumer, you can do your part in reducing your use of Styrofoam. A few of the changes that you can make today are:
Reusable containers. You can bring reusable containers and cups from home to many coffee shops and restaurants. Since you’re reusing items, you’ll reduce your waste while also ensuring that less EPS is used.
Reduced packaging options. When you order online, see if there are any reduced packaging options available. Some retailers have reduced packaging options to choose from that ensure your purchase leads to less waste.
Choose brands wisely. Your spending habits go a long way toward ensuring that companies that choose biodegradable packaging thrive. Research companies and their packaging so that you can spend your money at businesses that are conscious of their impact on the environment.
Ship with corn-based packaging. Did you know that corn-based packaging is much friendlier for the environment than Styrofoam? If you have to ship items, opt for these materials first. You can also choose to reuse some of the Styrofoam that you do have for packaging items.
There are also many environmental reasons to curb Styrofoam usage to reduce your overall impact on the environment.
Why Styrofoam is Bad for the Environment
Since Styrofoam breaks down yet doesn’t biodegrade, it remains in landfills for 500+ years. Managing this level of waste is difficult on its own, and the alternative ways to get rid of it are bad for the environment.
Heating Styrofoam will cause harsh, toxic chemicals to be released into the air.
Sunlight exposure causes the material to release harmful toxins into the ozone layer.
When the material begins to breakdown, it can be a choking hazard for children and is also consumed by animals, causing irreversible harm.
Chemicals from the foam leach into the ground.
While foam may be an excellent material for packaging, it simply damages the earth and poses serious health risks, too.
Sadly, 20% of the foam that people discard ends up in waterways. Fish and marine life eat the foam, and the material clogs up their digestive system. When this occurs, marine life starves to death.
Rivers and streams will also take the Styrofoam and deposit it into the ocean.
Once the foam reaches the ocean, it will wash up on the shore. California spends a staggering $72 million per year cleaning up single-use plastics and Styrofoam from its coastal areas. The damage from Styrofoam is so significant that it impacts local economies, ecosystems, and your health.
If you threw a Styrofoam cup in the trash in 2022, you could expect it to remain in landfills until at least 2522.
Key Takeaways on Recycling Styrofoam
Foam recycling is possible, but many recycling facilities will not process it due to the complexities in recycling this material. In fact, due to the large size of the foam, the material can impact a facility’s ability to recycle other materials, such as paper or glass.
As a consumer, you can make an effort to:
Reduce Styrofoam usage
Choose companies that offer biodegradable packaging
Bring the material to a facility capable of processing Styrofoam
Ideally, reducing your usage and using reusable containers will help keep this material out of landfills.