Can You Recycle Styrofoam?

Ah Styrofoam… the bane of every environmentalist's existence. I have to admit that before I knew about what REALLY can be recycled and what cannot, I used to throw my Styrofoam in the recycling bin!

So, I understand how confusing this can all be for consumers. This is why today I want to talk not only about the environmental impacts of Styrofoam to get you up to speed, but also cover how to dispose of Styrofoam in an eco-friendlier way.

1. What is Styrofoam?

From packing peanuts to insulation to takeout containers…. Styrofoam is everywhere! This isn’t too surprising when you consider that Styrofoam is cheap, versatile, and lightweight (did you know Styrofoam is 95% air?). Because Styrofoam is made from polystyrene beads (sourced from petroleum), it can be molded into any shape you can imagine. Styrofoam is also an insulator and does a fantastic job of blocking out cold air.

All of these qualities make Styrofoam a really common packaging for shipping. In fact, you have probably come into contact with Styrofoam packaging if you have ever bought an electronic household appliance like a vacuum, toaster, microwave, washing machine etc. But Styrofoam has other uses beyond packaging, it is also used in the food and craft industries.

When thinking about the different types of plastic out there, Styrofoam often goes by its official name Expanded Polystyrene (or EPS). Think of it this way, Tupperware (a brand) is to food containers as Styrofoam is to EPS. For the sake of not adding any more confusion to an already confusing topic, I will be calling EPS by its more common name in this article.

Stacks of Styrofoam boxes. Pin

2. Is Styrofoam bad for the environment?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans generated about 80,000 tons of Styrofoam containers in 2018 and less than 5,000 tons were recycled. Most Styrofoam products - like Styrofoam takeout containers - end up in landfills. Some estimates go as far as to suggest Styrofoam makes up 30% of all content in landfills globally.

But we have to back up here and first talk about how Styrofoam is made to really get the complete picture!

Styrofoam is made from a petroleum product known as styrene. As we know, fossil fuels like petroleum are one of the key drivers behind climate change since they release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. To break the numbers down, the production of one single Styrofoam cup releases 0.07229 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. While this might not sound like a lot, it adds up when you think about all of the Styrofoam out there.

Another piece of this story is chemicals. The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research has found 57 chemical byproducts released during the creation of Styrofoam! Research suggests that those who work in the manufacturing of Styrofoam and are exposed to these chemicals have higher risks of developing acute health effects including skin, eye, and respiratory tract irritation, as well as gastrointestinal effects.

Chronic exposure to benzene in styrene has also been linked with some pretty severe mental health effects since the chemicals involved in the production of Styrofoam can directly impact your nervous system. It’s worth mentioning here the EPA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have linked styrene as a possible human carcinogen!

The final piece to the story of Styrofoam production is water. Water used to manufacture Styrofoam must be cleaned of all of these chemicals because it can be released back into the water supply. This process alone releases 21 million tons of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere every year.

Back to disposal, Styrofoam is VERY difficult to clean up since it breaks apart into smaller beads. And if Styrofoam ends up in a waterway instead of a landfill, it floats… Animals like birds or turtles will often mistake these Styrofoam chunks and beads for food. When this happens this can have devastating impacts on the ecosystem and the health of the ecological community.

Styrofoam garbage on a beach. Pin

3. Does Styrofoam biodegrade?

To answer this question, we need first to understand the difference between the terms compostable and biodegradable. Biodegradable means an item can break down with or without oxygen.

Here, microorganisms will help break an item down and turn it back into carbon dioxide, water and biomass. It’s important to note that for an item to be truly biodegradable, harmful chemicals and other residue materials shouldn’t be left behind during this process (an item might be degradable, but not technically biodegradable).

Certifications and resources like SCS Global Services, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) are good places to start to know if an item is biodegradable or not.

So, is Styrofoam biodegradable? Nope. Styrofoam takes over 500 years to fully degrade back to its original materials, all while leaching harmful chemicals in the process!

4. Is Styrofoam compostable?

Compostable means that an item can decompose with the assistance of decomposers like worms, fungi, microorganisms, etc., and oxygen. Compostable materials will eventually break down into vegetable matter also known as hummus or ‘black gold’.

To know if something is truly compostable to avoid greenwashing, look for the ASTM D6400 logo (or CAN/BNQ-0017-088 if you are in Canada)! This will tell you if an item can be composted in a municipal or commercial facility. When taking this definition into consideration, it’s clear that Styrofoam doesn’t check the ‘compostable’ box.

5. Can you recycle Styrofoam?

If I had a nickel for every time a reader asked me, “can you recycle paper plates?” I'd be rich. The answer to this question isn't that simple because well… it depends.

Styrofoam products usually have the recyclable chasing arrows and the #6 on the item but this is very misleading since most regions don't have the necessary equipment needed to break it down properly.

This means that depending on where you live, if you throw Styrofoam in the recycling bin chances are it will still end up at the landfill at the end of the day. What’s worse, throwing Styrofoam into the recycling stream can actually contaminate what else is in the bin.

With all this being said, I have to ask how can the average consumer be expected to know how to dispose of Styrofoam packaging.

6. How to recycle Styrofoam in your area?

Because Styrofoam is so awful, it has been banned in some regions like Maine, New York, and New Jersey. If you happen to live in one of these places, lucky you! But even if this is the case, Styrofoam can still make an appearance on your doorstep if you purchase an item online or out of state.

What do you do when this happens? We have a right to know how to dispose of Styrofoam peanuts in an eco-friendly way! You have two main options depending on where you live:

Option 1 — Drop off program: Unfortunately, most recycling centers won’t take Styrofoam. This is why I recommend finding a local drop-off center that takes Styrofoam. You can search the EPA Recycling Map or Earth911 to find a recycling center near you (pro tip: they also have information on how to recycle other household items in your area like trash bags).

Option 2 — Curbside collection: If your municipality does collect Styrofoam through a curbside recycling program, make sure your items are clean and free from food waste to avoid contaminating the recycling stream.

Once your Styrofoam is delivered to a material recovery facility (MRF), the foam can then be turned into pellets which can be reused to make new products. Recycled Styrofoam is most commonly turned into items like picture frames, office supplies, and new packaging to protect breakable items and electronics.

6. Ways to REUSE Styrofoam

Sometimes Styrofoam just can’t be avoided and when it does end up in your home, try and reuse it! I have some ideas to help get you started:

Styrofoam plates

  • Slide Styrofoam plates in between your photographs or important documents as a protector
  • If you love to paint, you now have a quick and cheap paint palette

Styrofoam cups

  • Decorate Styrofoam cups and use them as a desk organizer for pens or makeup brushes
  • I love the Styrofoam DIY lantern cups (and they are adorable)
  • Use Styrofoam cups as mini pots when you propagate your plants (don't place the cups in the ground, remove the seedling from the cup, before you put them in the ground)

When it comes to styrofoam coffee cups, I highly recommend a sustainable swap. We use coffee cups for an average of 13 minutes before they are discarded… in other words, bring your own cup!

Packing peanuts

  • Use packing peanuts as stuffing for DIY bean bag chairs
  • Place your packing peanuts in the freezer overnight as an alternative to ice in your cooler

Styrofoam coolers

  • Cut a hole and some windows into the cooler and make a cat/dog house (bonus points if you decorate it)

Other ideas/ abnormal Styrofoam shapes

  • Reuse Styrofoam in an art project
  • Get in touch with your theatrical side and use old Styrofoam to make props
  • Donate your Styrofoam to your local shipping store

A final word on recycling Styrofoam

Knowing how to dispose of Styrofoam properly is a good first step in your journey to sustainable living. Recycle it if you can but if not there are tons of creative ways you can reuse Styrofoam! And if you have a choice, always try and opt for more sustainable, low-waste packaging.

There are tons of great compostable, reusable, and recyclable shipping materials and sustainable food packaging on the market today. I have even seen Styrofoam alternatives made from mushrooms!

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