Recycling Mystery: Expanded Polystyrene

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It’s the eternal question: Can I recycle expanded polystyrene?

It’s everywhere: It holds your food, secures items in packages, provides insulation in homes and it’s even in your bike helmet. It’s also known as plastic #6, which you’ve seen used in plastic cups and CD and DVD cases.

Fun fact: In 2006, the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers reported that 56 million pounds of EPS were recycled that year alone. That’s an astonishing amount considering that EPS is 98 percent air.

Here’s the thing: Even if your community recycles plastic #6, it may not accept EPS. It’s a similar case to the plastic bag conundrum, where different versions of plastics require separate recycling streams.

Because it’s so lightweight, EPS takes up 0.01 percent of the total municipal solid waste stream by weight, but as you may have guessed, its volume is a greater problem than its weight. It takes up space in landfills and doesn’t biodegrade. If you haven’t recycled EPS before, here’s how:

Packing peanuts are often the most difficult type of EPS to recycle. Keep it simple and save them for your next shipment! Photo: Achildgrowsinbrooklyn.com

Packing peanuts are often the most difficult type of EPS to recycle. Keep it simple and save them for your next shipment! Photo: Achildgrowsinbrooklyn.com

Methods of Recycling

Like we mentioned earlier, the most convenient method for consumers utilizes curbside recycling programs; however, due to transportation coordination and contamination rates, most communities do not have EPS recycling programs. But don’t despair, you have a number of options at your fingertips:

  • Drop-off sites – Check Earth911.com to find where you can find polystyrene recycling in your area. Make sure to call local sites beforehand to make sure EPS is accepted and in what form. If they do take EPS, most accept packing materials but not food or medical containers. Bring empty containers free of tape, labels, plastic film, etc. As you know, contaminants can ruin the recycling process.
  • Mail-back - If a drop-off site doesn’t exist in your area, you can also use a mail-back program such as the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers. Remember to remove all debris from the EPS before breaking it into smaller pieces that fit into a box for shipping.
  • Reuse for loose fill – What about packing peanuts? Their simplest reuse is in another package you need to ship. You can also donate them to UPS or other shipping stores, who will gladly reuse the material. Not sure where to go? Call the automated, 24-hour Peanut Hot line at 800-828-2214 to find a site near your residence that will reuse them.
  • Large volume - Working with a recycling company for pick-up service is best if your business receives mass amounts of EPS. Company requirements for storage and equipment vary, but it’s typical for storage containers to remain outdoors in a bin where EPS is kept clean, dry and unexposed to the elements. It is wise to check with the company to see how they accept EPS, whether it be stacked, bagged, bailed, condensed, etc.
  • On-site (for industry) – In the event that your business needs to routinely condense large pieces of EPS, look for devices from companies like RecycleTech or Styromelt™. For example, Styromelt™ is a device that uses thermal compaction to not only reduce the volume of EPS, but also to sterilize the briquette.

Advancing Technologies

Biodegradable packing materials are definitely in style. Puffy Stuff produces a plant-based product that can be used as fertilizer on your lawn. It breaks down into inert proteins after coming in contact with water and is consumed by soil bacteria. Puffy Stuff claims its product is so natural, you can eat it (although we haven’t tried it – yet!).

Also, scientists at Sony discovered that EPS completely dissolves when sprayed with limonene, a natural oil extracted from the skin of oranges or other citrus fruits. The EPS dissolves at room temperature and can be processed for reuse.

Because of the varied uses for EPS, recycling requirements are a little more complex than, say, paper and other plastics, but it is worth taking the time in order to keep this prevalent material in use and out of landfills.

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