Styrofoam is used in a lot of places, from its use in packaging appliances and electronics to its use as a food packaging material in your favorite restaurant. Even though we use styrofoam all the time, we still need to learn the answer to the common question; Can you recycle styrofoam?
Styrofoam is versatile. It is light, so it is great for cushioning fragile items like electronics and appliances when you’re moving them. At the same time, it provides insulation, which is why you often see it used to hold coffee or maybe even to line your walls: It works as a sealant to keep cold air out, which is helpful in the winter.
Styrofoam has become an important material in food packaging and as packaging peanuts, but one important question remains, Is styrofoam recyclable? In this article, we will discuss if styrofoam is recyclable but let’s first understand what styrofoam is.
What is styrofoam?
Styrofoam is a light material made from polystyrene. Polystyrene is a petroleum material that is made from harmful chemicals like styrene and benzene, which are considered harmful to health and the environment. Even though it is dangerous, it is still used for everyday packaging because it is cheap to make and easy to find.
Although many know styrofoam to be a packaging material, true styrofoam is made as an insulator to be used to keep buildings warm. The styrofoam used in packaging is a trademarked name for one type of packaging made of expanded polystyrene (EPS).
What is the difference between styrofoam and EPS?
Certain differences exist between styrofoam and EPS, even though many consider them to be the same thing. Here are some of the differences that exist between these two materials:
1. Styrofoam is blue in color and is an extruded polystyrene (XPS) foam that is used mostly in construction, craft applications and insulations. EPS, on the other hand, is an expanded polystyrene that can be cut into any shape and size and is used in a variety of applications including packaging, crafts and insulation.
2. Styrofoam has color dyes that are capable of polluting the environment. However, EPS foam composes of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, which are organic elements.
Is styrofoam bad for the environment?
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that styrene, one of the materials used in producing styrofoam, is hazardous to human health. According to the EPA, when people are exposed to styrene for a short time, it can irritate their eyes and mucous membranes and cause stomach problems.
When they are exposed to styrene for a long time, it affects their central nervous system (CNS) in ways like headaches, tiredness, weakness, depression, CNS dysfunction, hearing loss, and peripheral neuropathy.
Putting styrofoam in your recycling bin without checking to see if it can be recycled will probably end up in the trash. This is a big problem because it takes about 500 years for styrofoam to break down, which is really bad for the environment.
When the foam is exposed to sunlight, it makes pollutants and other chemicals that are bad for the environment and can hurt the ozone layer. It is also easy to break into small pieces that are very dangerous for animals, especially in the ocean. Styrofoam can make them choke and block their airways.
Can you recycle styrofoam?
Styrofoam can be recycled, but it is a bit difficult to recycle and quite expensive; it is almost not worth it. For styrofoam to be collected, there needs to be a way to pack it very tightly so that the costs of transporting such a light product are worth it.
Then, it has to be taken to a unique facility where it can be shredded and used for something else. After compaction, styrofoam can’t be stretched anymore. It’s often turned into hard plastic for other uses.
What are the steps in recycling styrofoam?
You can recycle styrofoam via the drop-off program of the curbside program. You will first need to contact your regional government to find out if styrofoam is permitted for drop-off or curbside programs in your region.
1. Drop off program
- Take the clean styrofoam to the local drop-off center
- A truck picks up the styrofoam from the drop-off center
- The truck delivers the materials to a facility for sorting
- During sorting, the styrofoam is separated from other materials and sent to a machine for grinding
- After grinding, the ground foam is put in a densifier. The densifier compacts the foam into solid blocks.
- The blocks are transported to buyers who may have a use for the foam.
2. Curbside program
- The unwanted styrofoam is placed in a recycle bin to be collected by a truck. The styrofoam has to be clean, or it won’t be recycled.
- The truck delivered the collected materials to a sorting facility.
- During sorting, the foam is separated from other materials and ground.
- The ground foam goes through a densifier that compacts the ground foam into solid blocks.
- The blocks are transported to buyers who may have use for them.
Where can you recycle styrofoam?
EPS can be reused or recycled in some places. The Foodservice Packaging Institute has more information about recycling foam and were to take different kinds of EPS. Some shipping stores will also take backpacking peanuts so they can be used again.
Some cities and recycling companies have places where people can drop off foam packaging. You can visit your regional government to check if there are any recycling factories nearby or if there are programs that let you drop your styrofoam for recycling.
6 Eco-friendly ways to reuse old styrofoam
1. Use them for planting
You can make little pots and seed starters for your plants using old Styrofoam containers. Fill with good soil, drill a hole in the bottom to help water drain out, and then bury some seeds about the length of a fingernail under the soil’s surface. After a few days of watering, sprouts will appear.
This is a great way to reuse a Styrofoam container that would have gone to a landfill. You can even ask your friends for their old Styrofoam containers and use them to make seed starter kits.
2. Fill out bean bags or pillows with styrofoam
Beanbags are a comfy option for lounging outside on a sunny day or in the kiddies’ playroom. You can make beanbags using old styrofoam that has been crushed into small pieces. Make a cover using any desired fabric and stuff it with crushed styrofoam.
You can also stuff it in pillowcases to make extra pillows for your bedroom and sitting room.
3. Use it as an organizer
Use your old Styrofoam coffee cups to make handy little organizers for small things. Once they are clean, you can use them to organize drawers or space for tools: great for keeping screws, nails, pins, and paperclips in order.
4. Use it as packaging peanuts
You may want to gift family or friends fragile items on their birthdays, weddings or any other special day. Instead of leaving the fragile item to the mercy of the courier, you can package it using old styrofoam that has been crushed.
Using crushed styrofoam to package fragile items can act as a cushion to prevent the items from cracking or breaking.
5. Use them to make shoe padding
If you walk a lot in shoes with hard soles, do your feet get tired and sore? A small piece of styrofoam can help your feet feel better.
Because they are filled with air, they tend to absorb pressure. Just cut a flat piece of styrofoam to fit inside your shoe, and that will help you feel better.
6. Use styrofoam to make stage props
Spending money on props for your plays and skits is a waste of money. You can make your props using styrofoam. Styrofoam is light and easy to move, which makes it a great prop material.
You can cut it into any shape and paint it with any color you like. If you are creative enough, it will look so good no one will know that it isn’t the real thing. Plus, you get to use it in subsequent plays.
Eco-friendly alternatives to styrofoam
If you are big on being eco-friendly and you want to avoid using styrofoam altogether, there are eco-friendly alternatives you can choose from. Here are a few examples of eco-friendly alternatives to styrofoam.
Bamboo containers are better for the environment than those made of styrofoam. It is a strong, biodegradable, and renewable grass plant that doesn’t rot or attract pests.
Paper cups, food containers, and even utensils can be lined with bamboo. Bamboo is natural, biodegradable, and renewable, and it can hold more weight than a regular Styrofoam container. The fact that bamboo is stiff makes it less useful than the other choices.
Bamboo is hard to shape, so it can only be used to hold baked goods, gourmet meals, and artisanal meals that are served dry.
2. PLA- lined paper
PLA-lined paper is one of the most environmentally friendly alternatives to styrofoam that you can use to store food. PLA stands for polylactic acid, which is a thermoplastic polyester made from plant starch that has been fermented. These include corn, cassava, sugar beet pulp, sugar cane, and many others.
The resin-like material inside PLA-lined paper is a great material for lining paper cups and food containers. It works for both hot and cold food because it can handle temperatures from 32 to 185 F.
One problem with PLA-lined paper is that it doesn’t conduct extreme heat well. This means that it crumples in hot liquids like coffee and can be hot to the touch. PLA-lined containers should work well as an alternative for most meals.
Many villages in Asia and Africa have long practiced the use of leaves in both food preparation, service and packaging. This practice has become more popular in urban areas, and even posh international restaurants now use this form of food packaging like some Chinese restaurants.
Leaves such as banana leaves, plantain leaves, taumatococcus daniellii and a host of others are common plant leaves used in the preparation and packaging of food. These leaves are eco-friendly and biodegradable, and additionally, they add certain flavors and aromas to certain foods.
One of the downsides of this food packaging alternative is that many find it unpresentable and unhygienic. It is also important that the leaves are properly cleaned to avoid the transmission of insect eggs and pathogens to the food.
4. Sugarcane Bagasse food container
Another sustainable material that can be used instead of styrofoam is sugarcane bagasse. Bagasse is a type of fiber made from sugar cane. It is 90% cellulose and 10% lignin, which is the main structural part of the wood. The fiber itself has about 2% to 4% lignin, which holds the fiber together and gives it strength.
Because it breaks down, sugarcane bagasse is a great alternative to styrofoam. It can also be turned into compost, and unlike styrofoam, it is completely safe. Sugarcane bagasse is mostly used to make paper, but it can also be used to make containers that can go in the microwave and fridge.
The bad thing about sugarcane bagasse is that it can’t stand up to heat. Bagasse doesn’t catch fire on its own, but the heat that builds up inside can be a problem. Another problem with this material is that it needs to be composted in an industrial setting.
Styrofoam may be recycled, but if you are not able to recycle them, you can use old styrofoam in many creative ways, as stated in this article. Just remember that it is bad for the environment, so call your local recycling center before putting anything in your recycling bins.
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