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Why Can’t Styrofoam Be Recycled?



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. 

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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, plastic, paper, and aluminum, be separated before putting it out on the curb. The only thing you really need to know in advance is what can and cannot be recycled. 

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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 and reused; particularly in the case of diapers. It’s not unreasonable, however, for some to assume that things like plastic bags and pizza boxes can be recycled. 

Some plastic bags even say that they are made out of recycled plastic. Unfortunately, once they’ve gotten to that stage and made it out into the landfills of the world, they’re little more than choking hazards for sea turtles. Oddly enough, some of the most flagrant landfill pollutants can actually be reused; even something as toxic as styrofoam

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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, it simply dissipates, becoming toxic as it breaks down. For this reason, most people assume that it’s not really viable in terms of recycling. For better or worse, it’s not something that any environmentally-conscious person seeks out when they’re looking for party plates. 

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Why wouldn’t you recycle styrofoam?

Styrofoam is 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. Most of the companies who have attempted to pull, process, and recycle styrofoam have operated at a loss. For example, if you spent around $1,000 recycling styrofoam, you’d only make about $200 back, if anything. Thus, it’s not a lucrative venture for businesses to adopt. Even not-for-profit organizations like municipal recycling facilities would be hard-pressed to receive funding towards this herculean task. 

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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 them reaching out to big-box stores that use tons and tons of styrofoam every year. 

For appliance stores, styrofoam makes up about 80 percent of their total waste output. Lowes is one of the first major retailers to get on board and there have been some strides as far as fewer carbon emissions and in how much styrofoam is just being dumped into the trash. So long as the technology behind the process continues to develop, more and more retailers may get on board. With any luck, we can make styrofoam waste a thing of the past.

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