Nobody Said Styrofoam Recycling Was Easy…But It Is Possible!

by Nicola Temple on November 11, 2011

We’ve talked a lot about recycling here on EcoVillageGreen, but today we tackle one of the biggest recycling nightmares of all….styrofoam recycling.

But before we get started, I need to clarify what I’m referring to when I say Styrofoam. It’s a little known fact that Styrofoam is a trademark name for closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam produced by the Dow Chemical Company.

However, in the US and Canada, we like to use it as a generic term for any expanded polystyrene foam products from disposable cups to packing material.

It’s similar to how Frisbee and Ski-Doo have become generic terms for flying discs and snowmobiles. It’s every marketing team’s dream really!

Anyway, I’m referring to the generic use of Styrofoam but will also refer to it as polystyrene just to keep you on your toes.

Polystyrene, as you know, is extremely lightweight in relation to its volume. This makes it a landfill nightmare as it takes up a whole lot of space for what it is. It’s also a petroleum-based product, so it’s reliant on fossil fuels and for all practical purposes it doesn’t biodegrade either– making it an environmental nightmare.

However, it is not likely to be ruled out any time soon as it has many industrial uses, so how can we recycle our Styrofoam?

Commercial Styrofoam recycling

Many companies are faced with an abundance of polystyrene packaging materials and many are now investing in equipment that compact the Styrofoam. It gets compressed into dense blocks that can then be turned into other products such as garden furniture, coat hangers, concrete forms, disposable razors, and CD and DVD cases.  The kitchen appliance store Warners’ Stellian talks about how they’ve incorporated a polystyrene condenser into their waste system in this video:

Unfortunately, many of the products produced from recycled polystyrene aren’t recyclable themselves meaning the recycled polystyrene ends up in a landfill anyway but at least its life has been somewhat extended.

This condensed polystyrene can also be burned and some industries purchase it as a cheaper fuel source.

If the desired end product is simply fuel, the polystyrene can be put through a different machine that essentially chops it up and melts it. This reduces its size by about 95% and then this product can be sold for fuel.

styrofoam recycling

Styrofoam recycling has its challenges as most curbside recycling programs do not accept #6 plastics. CC image courtesy of Kai Hendrys on Flickr

Styrofoam recycling at home

Of course, most of us aren’t as concerned about what to do with polystyrene on a commercial scale. We’re more concerned about what to do with those odd bits of packing material and Styrofoam peanuts we come across every now and then with a new purchase.

We have written previously about what the plastic recycling numbers mean, so check that article out for more detail, but polystyrene or Styrofoam is labelled as #6 plastic. Unfortunately, most curbside recycling programs do not accept it.

Yet, there is hope.

Four options for your foam

First, you can look up recycling centres near you that accept polystyrene or #6 plastic using Earth911’s search engine.

Second, if it’s Styrofoam peanut packaging that you’ve got, all UPS stores will accept it and reuse it.

Third, check with your local craft store as apparently some places will take in Styrofoam as it is commonly sought after by crafters for various uses including stuffing material.

Last, if you run into a dead end on the first three, then it is time to get creative. Here are some ways you can reuse Styrofoam around your house:

  • Instead of filling your plant pots with gravel or buying lightweight pot filler, use chopped up Styrofoam to create drainage in the bottom of plant pots. Now, we mentioned in our plastics article that there is some evidence of toxins leaching out of #6 plastics, so maybe avoid this idea for pots you plan on using for edible plants.
  • Collect it for stuffing for bean bag chairs, or neck pillows.
  • Use it as insulation! Styrofoam is coveted for its insulative properties, so take advantage of this and stuff it into walls and attics for additional insulation.
  • Make a floating key chain for that boat enthusiast in your life!

If you have other ideas, please share them!

Styrofoam is one of those products that are best avoided due to the challenges of recycling. However, sometimes it is unavoidable. If you get stuck with some, hopefully these options will help in your Styrofoam recycling quest.

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