Expanded polystyrene foam, commonly mistaken as Styrofoam® (a trademark of the DOW Chemical Corporation), is used in numerous ways by individuals and organizations around the world. Foam is water resistant and hygienic with high thermal insulating, allowing it to serve a number of purposes. Therefore, it is no surprise that polystyrene foam, or foam #6, is a common choice, used across many different industries.
In the recent years, polystyrene foam has garnered attention within the environmental protection community. Some states and cities in the United States do not accept polystyrene foam in their recycling collections. As a result, many people have wrongfully assumed that polystyrene foam cannot be recycled. Contrary to popular belief, polystyrene materials are 100 percent recyclable. In addition, developments over the past five to ten years have actually made it possible for people to participate, directly or indirectly, in recycling foam.
How to Recycle Styrofoam
The most convenient way for consumers to recycle their used polystyrene foam is to participate in curbside recycling programs. Polystyrene foam materials are made up of 90% air, which means that they do not weigh much and are not expensive to transport. Recycling facilities are increasingly finding ways to store this product. The ability to densify and store material in compact places prior to recycling has helped prevent the material from accumulating in landfills.
However, due to transportation difficulties and contamination rates, a lot of communities have yet to institute polystyrene foam recycling programs. That being said, there are several different options to consider when it comes to recycling used polystyrene materials:
- Drop-off sites – Look online to find polystyrene foam drop-off centers in your area. Not all centers take every type of polystyrene foam, so it is best to confirm what forms of the material are accepted. Bring used polystyrene foam products that are free of tape, labels, plastic film, etc., as contaminants can interfere with the recycling process. In most cases, once collected, the polystyrene foam is recycled either on site or it is densified and then delivered to a recycler.
- Mail-back – If your area does not have a drop-off center, consider sending your polystyrene foam to a recycler through a mail-back program such as Dart Container’s Recycla-Pak. Those interested can package and ship small amounts of polystyrene foam to more than 30 mail-back facilities across the country. Individuals, companies and organizations, such as hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, schools and colleges, use these programs to recycle polystyrene foam packaging.
- Reuse for loose fill – Packaging peanuts can be donated to UPS or other shipping stores that will gladly reuse the material for future packages. Feel free to contact the automated, 24-hour peanut hotline at 800-828-2214 to find a location that accepts used polystyrene packaging peanuts.
- Large volume – If your business uses and disposes of large quantities of polystyrene foam on a regular basis, it is best to work with a recycling company that offers a pick-up service. For example, Styro Recycle offers a convenient and inexpensive pick-up service for businesses that frequently use and dispose of polystyrene foam products. Styro Recycle has helped businesses save hundreds to thousands of dollars on disposal fees.
- On-site (for industry) – If your organization constantly needs to condense large amounts of polystyrene foam, look for devices from companies like RecycleTech or StryoGenie. For example, StyroGenie is a low cost, thermal densification machine that reverses the foam manufacturing process by removing the air and returning it to a liquid resin.The final product is then recycled into other products such as picture frames or paving bricks.
Recycling is an Emerging Market
Polystyrene recycling represents an emerging market. To date, 65 cities throughout the United States have implemented effective programs to recycle and reuse this valuable resource. For example, Los Angeles is one of over 40 cities and counties in California that have introduced a curbside program for recycling clean polystyrene foam products, including foam cups. Currently, no such program exists for coated paperboard products. While the recycling requirements are a little more complex than other materials that are frequently recycled, it is worth the additional effort to keep this material in use and out of landfills.
Foam manufacturers are changing the way polystyrene foam is recycled for both food containers and product packaging. Over the years, organizations across the globe have identified new ways to create a variety of products out of recycled polystyrene foam. From picture frames and surfboards to building insulation and architectural molding, the opportunities for post-consumer recycled polystyrene are numerous.
In this day and age, it is important to educate the public and spread awareness of the significance and necessity of polystyrene recycling to help preserve our environment for future generations.