Styrofoam Containers
Source: iStock

Why Can’t Styrofoam Be Recycled?

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Jan. 26 2023, Updated 11:19 a.m. ET

For many people, green living is the act of sacrificing convenience in our own day-to-day lives in exchange for a cleaner future for everyone. Composting, driving less, eating cleaner, and recycling are all part of the process, but for some people, these minor inconveniences are not worth the time it takes to separate cans from your regular garbage — or the effort it takes to avoid using Styrofoam, aka polystyrene, a material that is notoriously near-impossible to recycle.

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It doesn’t take much to weed out the lazy from the dedicated, and even the most lackadaisical of environmentally-conscious people agree that recycling one’s trash is the absolute bare minimum that one can do to make an impact. This process is uncomplicated and requires only that the recyclable elements of your garbage — such as glass, plastic, paper, and aluminum — be separated and placed into the appropriate bins. The only thing you really need to know in advance is what can and cannot be recycled.

Styrofoam Container
Source: iStock
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What cannot be recycled?

Batteries, paint cans, diapers, and light bulbs are some of the most obvious culprits in this category. It would take someone without a single iota of intellect to assume that any of these items could be recycled curbside and reused, particularly in the case of diapers. It’s not unreasonable, however, for some to assume that things like plastic bags can be recycled curbside.

In reality, plastic bags, paint cans, batteries, and light bulbs can all be recycled — just not via the blue bins you bring to your curb. They must be recycled via special drop-off progams.

And oddly enough, even something as toxic as polystyrene, often referred to by the brand name Styrofoam, can technically be recycled via a few special programs — but these are few and far between.

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Styrofoam Trash
Source: iStock

What is Styrofoam?

Styrofoam, otherwise known as polystyrene foam, is a synthetic hydrocarbon polymer that is used from anything to foam insulation to packing peanuts, lids, containers, trays, tumblers, and even disposable cutlery. It also doesn’t biodegrade; instead, it becomes very toxic as it breaks down in landfills, where it takes hundreds of years to break down.

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For this reason, most people assume that polystyrene is not really viable in terms of recycling. For better or worse, it’s not something that any eco-conscious person seeks out when they’re looking for party plates.

Why wouldn’t you recycle Styrofoam?

Styrofoam is technically recyclable, but the process is not commonplace because there’s not a whole lot of money in it. If there’s anything that can incentivize people to do something, even something inconvenient and good for the environment, it’s money.

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Most of the companies who have attempted to pull, process, and recycle polystyrene have operated at a loss. For example, if you spent around $1,000 recycling polystyrene, you’d only make about $200 back, if anything, according to Earth911.

Thus, it’s not a lucrative venture for businesses to adopt. Even nonprofit organizations like municipal recycling facilities would be hard-pressed to receive funding towards this herculean task.

Styrofoam Recycling
Source: iStock
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How can Styrofoam be recycled?

Methodologies differ, but some of the most convenient involve trucks with built-in Styrofoam compactors. The Styrofoam is collected, compacted, and reprocessed right on-site before being sent off to be repurposed into something that looks like marble, wood, or quartz, but is as light as styrofoam. Because the resultant facsimiles are so lightweight, several airlines have even begun to use them as countertops and accents on their planes.

Are people actually recycling Styrofoam?

As it happens, many companies have bought into the idea of recycling styrofoam in recent years thanks to the innovations of some smaller companies like Styro-Go. Much of this is thanks to these brands reaching out to big-box stores that use tons and tons of polystyrene every year.

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For one anonymous big-box appliance store chain, polystyrene makes up about 80 percent of their total waste output, as per Earth911. There have been some strides as far as fewer carbon emissions and in how much Styrofoam is just being dumped into the trash, in large part thanks to certain cities and states banning various Styrofoam products.

As the technology behind the polystyrene process continues to develop, more and more retailers may get on board with accepting polystyrene for recycling — or, better yet, hopefully more and more businesses will ban the material outright. With any luck, we can make Styrofoam waste a thing of the past.

This article, originally published on Oct. 16, 2020 has been updated.

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