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Is Styrofoam Recyclable? Facts & FAQ

pile of styrofoam

Styrofoam is used for everything from takeout cups to food containers and packing peanuts. If you look closely, many of these items have the universal symbol for recycling stamped into them somewhere. This symbol, the triangle of arrows, makes people think that styrofoam can simply be tossed into the nearest recycling bin and forgotten about. But the issue is actually much more complicated than that.

Styrofoam is technically recyclable, but it cannot be recycled in the same way you recycle newspapers or aluminum cans. Most curbside providers will not take styrofoam, and large portions of styrofoam end up in landfills due to improper recycling. Styrofoam can only be recycled at facilities specifically designed to handle it, and these facilities often have special drop-off points or rules making it so that the vast majority of people never actually recycle their Styrofoam, even if they think that they are.

To make matters even more confusing, styrofoam is different from what we are actually talking about. The colloquial term Styrofoam is actually a trademarked name that applies to a specific type of expanded polystyrene (EPS) that is used in building insulation.

Let’s unpack everything and figure out what exactly styrofoam is and why it is hard to recycle properly.

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Styrofoam = EPS

Styrofoam is the colloquial term for any expanded polystyrene (EPS) material. EPS is a common material that everyone is used to using on a regular basis. Actual brand-name Styrofoam is only used in very specific situations and usually as a building material, not a drink cup. This has not stopped people from erroneously using the term “styrofoam” when referring to any EPS material, but the two, for all intents and purposes, are the same thing. The actual trademarked Styrofoam material is a modified version of EPS.

EPS materials are recyclable, but not in the way that most people think they are.

Technically Recyclable, But Not Really

Styrofoam can only be recycled at specific facilities designed to handle the intake and processing of EPS material. Facilities that cannot handle the specialized materials usually end up sorting the styrofoam out and sending it to the local landfill. The costs and labor associated with sorting and transporting styrofoam to a proper recycling facility often outweigh the benefits, leading many municipalities to simply throw the materials away when it comes through their facilities.

Anyone who has tossed a styrofoam container into basic blue recycling bins is actually just throwing their styrofoam away. Even if they think they are doing good, they are actually causing more of a headache than they realize. Instead of going directly to the landfill, like normal solid waste, improperly recycled S\styrofoam goes to the recycling facility, has to be then sorted out, and then sent to the landfill. These extra steps waste countless amounts of time and money.

woman throwing styrofoam cup on the bin
Image Credit By: Julio Lopez, Unsplash

Proper Disposal of Styrofoam

So how does one properly dispose of styrofoam? First, you should look up your local municipality’s rules on recycling. These rules differ from county to county and sometimes even from neighborhood to neighborhood. There is a small chance your local trash hauler is able to take EPS. If that is the case, you can recycle without any worries. But it is rarely that simple.

The other way to properly recycle styrofoam is to look up an official styrofoam drop off point¹ that specifically takes foam products to be recycled. These drop off points will take your styrofoam to a proper facility and ensure that it is handled and disposed of correctly to avoid any mistakes. Unfortunately, these official foam recycling centers are rare. Some communities only have one, while some regions have none at all.

If you do not have a proper foam recycling drop off point near you and your trash hauler does not take styrofoam, then the best thing to do with your styrofoam containers is to throw them away and send them to the landfill.

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Why Is Styrofoam So Hard to Recycle Properly?

The biggest reason styrofoam is so hard to recycle is that it is mostly air. Styrofoam is lightweight, and that is why people use it in a variety of different ways, but that is also what makes it so hard to deal with. Styrofoam likes to blow away, so it is hard to transport in open-topped trucks. It has to be stored and transported properly so that haulers do not accidentally spill hundreds of lightweight packing peanuts all over their local roadways.

Styrofoam has to be crushed and flattened into denser sheets or cubes in order for it to be useful. The process of crushing styrofoam requires specialized equipment and facilities that simply do not exist in most places. The difficulty of transporting and crushing styrofoam into a usable form makes the recycling process cumbersome and hard to manage. The result is that most places simply opt to do the easier thing, which is to throw styrofoam into a landfill.

Styrofoam in landfills is a growing problem because the material does not break down like other types of trash. Styrofoam cups will sit in landfills for hundreds of years after they are thrown away—a steep price to pay for a quick drink.

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Conclusion

Technically, on paper, styrofoam is recyclable. However, the process and availability of styrofoam recycling make it so that it is rarely done properly. In order to recycle styrofoam, you must look up an official foam recycling drop off point and bring the recycling there to be processed. Anything else almost guarantees your styrofoam will simply end up in your local landfill, where it will sit for hundreds of years.


Featured Image Credit: Jonas Gerlach, Unsplash

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