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Is Styrofoam Recyclable? How to Dispose of It Properly

Styrofoam is used for everything from takeout containers to packaging. But is styrofoam recyclable? And what's its environmental impact?

Written by
Sophia Young

From the takeout containers at your favorite restaurant to the packing peanuts in your brand-new product's packaging, you'll find that Styrofoam is everywhere. But, as often as we use it, there's still little information on whether styrofoam is recyclable or not.

Styrofoam is versatile. It's lightweight, making it an ideal cushion for transporting fragile goods such as electronics and appliances. At the same time, it offers insulation, which is why you’ll often see it used to house coffee or maybe even to line your walls: It works as a sealant to lock out cold air, useful during the winter months. 

However, Styrofoam is also known for being harmful to the environment and humans. This begs the question: If Styrofoam is harmful, how come we’re still using it? More importantly, what can we do to minimize the use of Styrofoam? Here’s everything you need to know.

The Environmental Impact of Styrofoam

Styrofoam is actually a trademarked brand name: The product itself is a form of polystyrene, which is a petroleum-based plastic that can either be solid plastic or foam. The foamed version is also known as Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), which is what we know as Styrofoam. But Styrofoam has become synonymous with EPS the same way bandages are referred to as Band-Aids.

EPS is made of polystyrene beads. If you were to closely inspect a piece of Styrofoam, you could see it is made up of minuscule beads that look joined together. These beads are lightweight, strong, and possess thermal insulation and shock absorption properties. For this reason, EPS has plenty of uses, making it versatile and convenient to use.

Plus, Styrofoam doesn't cost much to manufacture, and when you combine that with its appeal, there is an almost endless demand for single-use Styrofoam. 

However, as versatile as it is, EPS comes with an environmental impact—one that's closely related to the amount of Styrofoam products getting sent to landfills. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2018 alone, Americans generated about 80,000 tons of Styrofoam containers—and less than 5,000 tons were recycled. Plus, about 140,000 tons of polystyrene bags, sacks, and wraps were generated in 2018—and again, only about 20,000 tons were recycled. 

Styrofoam is non-biodegradable, which means it won't break down naturally. So, it's not entirely untraceable or harmless. When EPS products get sent to landfills—or worse, when they're littered—they release chemical pollutants and greenhouse gases. Both of which contribute to global warming.

So the next question is: Is Styrofoam recyclable?

Is Styrofoam Recyclable?

Unfortunately, Styrofoam isn't as recyclable as we want it to be. Most Styrofoam products do contain a small recycling symbol and the #6 label. However, that recycling symbol is misleading: Styrofoam tends to go straight to the landfill unless you can find a trusted drop-off location near you.

Recycling Styrofoam isn’t as cut and dry as recycling other types of waste, like plastic. It faces a few challenges that hinder its recyclability. For one thing, Styrofoam is difficult to revert to its most basic form and very few recycling facilities have the necessary equipment needed to recycle it during the recycling process. For this reason, you'll have to contact your local recycling facility to see if Styrofoam products are accepted.

Plus, throwing EPS products into the recycling bin can actually contaminate the entire recycling bin. This could lead to the entire bin getting rejected when it arrives at a recycling facility. Why? Because EPS contains harmful toxins, and if those toxins are broken down by recycling processes, they could end up in products we use in our everyday lives.

Moreover, EPS products can hardly be reused. This is especially true for food and beverage containers, which are arguably one of the largest uses for Styrofoam.

What You Can Do

The appeal and convenience of Styrofoam are undeniable, but there are some actions you can take to curb your consumption and cut down on waste.

1. Opt for Styrofoam Alternatives

The same way we try to avoid single-use plastics, you can avoid single-use Styrofoam. Instead of using single-use coffee cups, try the Sustainable On-the-Go Coffee Cup featured in the Brightly shop. It's made from discarded coffee husk and can be reused indefinitely.

Whenever you grab a coffee on the go, you can bring your reusable cup with you and eliminate the need for Styrofoam—or other hard to recycle, single-use cups. And instead of using Styrofoam takeout containers for leftovers, use reusable containers that won't get trashed after one use.

2. Don't Just Throw It Away

If Styrofoam can’t be avoided then do the next best thing: Dispose of it properly. Don’t just throw it in the trash because that's one way to contribute to the problem. Instead, you can send it to a recycling facility that accepts Styrofoam.

Earth911 helps you locate the nearest recycling center or drop-off center—just type in your zip code, and you’re good to go. You could also collect your Styrofoam first before donating it to prevent multiple trips. 

3. Buy From Sustainable Brands

When shopping, it's not only important to look at the environmental footprint of what you're buying: It's also important to look at the packaging. Look for brands that use biodegradable, compostable, or upcycled packaging.

When we shop more sustainably, we're actively voting with our dollars and telling industries that consumers prioritize eco-friendly business practices.