Styrofoam is one of the most common forms of single-use plastic. It uses a lot of oil and energy to produce and takes up space in landfills.
It also takes a long time to break down in landfills and can harm animals that consume it. Finding alternatives and reducing our use of polystyrene is the best way to go.
Styrofoam, or expanded polystyrene foam (EPS), is one of the most widely used single-use plastics. It is a key ingredient in takeout containers, disposable coffee cups, and shipping materials. It is also a common component of day-to-day items like coat hangers and picture frames, as well as medical applications such as test tubes and petri dishes. Unlike many other single-use plastics, styrofoam does not biodegrade. It will be around long after our great-grandchildren are buried underneath it, taking up space in landfills and polluting our waterways. Thankfully, though, styrofoam can be recycled.
The good news is that EPS can be recycled in some communities, but it should never be placed in your regular curbside recycling bin. Instead, you should look for recycling options specific to EPS, which can be found through online searches. Many companies offer drop-off and pick-up options, or you may be able to find a community recycling center that specifically collects EPS. For example, in the Bay Area, GreenCitizen has a program that accepts EPS drop-offs and liaises with businesses to offer a pickup recycling service.
Typically, styrofoam is recycled through a process called thermal recycling. This process converts the styrofoam into dense blocks that are then used to make products such as insulation sheets and construction materials. This process can be expensive, which is why it is rarely done in communities with curbside recycling programs. Alternatively, some recyclers are using new advances in chemical recycling to break down EPS at a chemical level so that it can be reused. This method is much less expensive, but it is not yet available in most communities.
If you do have access to a local recycling plant that processes EPS, it is important to make sure that your styrofoam is clean before bringing it in. Any stickers, sellotape, or dirt can interfere with the processing and will result in a lower quality end product. Additionally, styrofoam cannot be recycled with any other plastics, so it should be brought in separately from other recycling.
Even when a recycling option for EPS is available, it is still preferable to avoid the material whenever possible and opt for reusable or more sustainable alternatives. The lightweight material can easily be blown away by wind and washed into water sources, where it can leach chemicals that can harm wildlife. Additionally, styrofoam takes up space in landfills and can be harmful to animals who consume it or become stuck in the pieces.