Recycling Mystery: Expanded Polystyrene

It’s the eternal question: Can I recycle expanded polystyrene (commonly known by the brand name Styrofoam)?

Expanded polystyrene (EPS) seems to be everywhere: It holds your food, secures items in packages, provides insulation in homes, and even helps protect your head in your bike helmet. It’s designated by the plastic recycling code #6 PS, which (in unexpanded form) you’ll find in plastic cups and CD and DVD cases.

Fun fact: In 2016, the EPS Industry Alliance (EPS-IA) reported that 118 million pounds of EPS were recycled that year alone. That’s an astonishing amount considering that EPS is 98 percent air.

Here’s the Problem

Even if your community recycles plastic #6, it may not accept EPS. That’s because EPS is an end product, and you can’t un-expand the plastic resin. You can only shred it into more EPS, and it’s cheaper to make this product from virgin material.

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.

Methods of Recycling/Reuse

While curbside recycling is limited for EPS, there are recycling markets. The form is the biggest factor in how to get rid of it. EPS in packaging form (especially packing peanuts) is often accepted at shipping stores for reuse, but these locations won’t take your to-go containers or cups. Here are other options:

  • Drop-off sites: Earth911 Recycling Search can help you find polystyrene recycling in your area. Make sure to call local sites in advance 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. EPS-IA maintains a directory of EPS recycling companies, including businesses where you can drop off the material and those that will pick it up curbside. Make sure all containers are clean, empty, and free of tape, labels, plastic film, or other contamination. As you know, contaminants can ruin the recycling process. You can also check out the Home for Foam website where you can learn what the “compacted foam” recycling process looks like.
  • Mail-back: If a drop-off site doesn’t exist in your area, you can use one of the mail-in options listed on EPS-IA’s website. You’ll need to pay for shipping, but given the light weight of the material, it should cost less than $10 per box. 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 The UPS Store outlets or other shipping stores, who will gladly reuse clean packing peanuts. Not sure where to go? EPS-IA e provides a drop-off map to help you find collection centers near you. (You can also call them at 800-828-2214.)
  • 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, or condensed.
  • On-site (for industry): If your business routinely deals with large pieces of EPS, look for devices from companies like RecycleTech or StyroMelt that reduce the volume of EPS for large-scale recycling.

EPS Alternatives

As more governments consider EPS ban legislation and businesses phase out EPS foam packaging, you’ll likely start seeing alternatives. You can already find food packaging made from bamboo, cornstarch, mushrooms, and peat plastic, not to mention plantable packaging.

Dell and Ikea are already leaders in using alternatives to EPS packaging, and pressure is mounting on companies like Amazon and Walmart to follow suit.

If costs dictate that you continue to use EPS, try to purchase EPS made of recycled content. Usually, packing peanuts that are green in color are made of a high percentage of recycled content. So, if you ship a lot of material, spring for the off-white color EPS for your packages.

Feature photo: Khambian

Editor’s note: Previously published on March 9, 2014, this article was updated in June 2018 by Earth911 writer Trey Granger.

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