The potential for styrofoam recycling is growing across the United States. According to the Earth Day Network, we produce more than 14 million tons of polystyrene each year, with 25 billion styrofoam cups being thrown away per year in the United States alone.
That’s a lot of styrofoam, and unfortunately, there is a misguided and ongoing belief that styrofoam cannot be recycled.
I want to clear up the confusion around styrofoam recycling once and for all. It is not only false that styrofoam can’t be recycled, it creates a dangerous narrative that robs styrofoam recycling centers of their much-needed polystyrene recycling raw materials, instead placing these materials into landfills where they can take many years to decompose.
Something I should address right away is that the word styrofoam is a trademarked brand name for expanded polystyrene (EPS) that is owned by the Dow Chemical Company. It is commonly used to refer to all foamed polystyrene products. While it would be more technically accurate to call it polystyrene recycling (or polystyrene foam recycling), as styrofoam has become such a well-recognized term, and for the sake of consistency, in this article I’ll refer to all forms of polystyrene recycling as styrofoam recycling. (Polystyrene foam is number six on the resin identification code, while there are other types such as polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyurethane foam. Here’s my guide to understanding plastic recycling codes.)
I often say that (almost) anything is recyclable as long as the material can be collected, sorted, and we can find a buyer for the raw materials looking to be repurposed. This is as true of styrofoam as it is of e-waste, organics, or shrink wrap, and it is becoming increasingly possible to save this notoriously hard-to-recycle material from going to landfill.
If you feel overburdened with the amount of styrofoam that makes its way into your business, and you feel guilty every time you throw it into the trash (or worse, put it in with your plastics or single-stream recycling in a fit of aspirational recycling), know that there are styrofoam recycling solutions available for your business that allow you to do your bit for the environment while eradicating the feeling of guilt.
Styrofoam Recycling 101
One of the reasons why styrofoam recycling was ignored by businesses and individuals for so long is because many of us believed it was a minor problem. Sure, we understood while throwing styrofoam in the trash that there could be the potential to recycle it, but given that statistics such as the fact that styrofoam accounts for just one percent of waste in landfills were flying around, glossing over this one material from our recycling efforts didn’t feel so bad.
Unfortunately, these statistics were flawed. The lightweight form of polystyrene foam means that while it may take up just one percent of the weight of all waste in a landfill, the volume it takes up, and the detrimental impact on the environment it can cause after being landfilled, is dramatically underestimated.
With that said, on a residential curbside collection level styrofoam recycling is still not commonplace due to sorting challenges at materials recovery facilities (MRFs), therefore it’s even more important that businesses step up. There can be end markets for styrofoam and other foamed polystyrene products, but in order to make styrofoam recycling a possibility for your business several variables need to line up, including the following:
Your business will need to be producing a significant volume of styrofoam and other polystyrene foam recycling in order to make the cost of having it taken away to be recycled lower than that of simply having it taken to landfill. On the whole, styrofoam recycling tends to be a more viable option for larger scale generators of packaging, such as distribution centers, warehouses, and manufacturing plants, not simply the odd styrofoam cooler here or there.
Access to Densifier
Access to a site that has a way to densify styrofoam into blocks before being sent out (otherwise you’d be shipping mostly air) is second to volume as the most important factor to ensuring you’re able to participate in a styrofoam recycling program. This can either be an on-site densifier, or by accumulating enough volume at a centralized point.
Location of Recycler
The location of the recycler or end user of your styrofoam recycling is critical to ensuring that you are able to recycle this material. Given the transportation costs to the foam’s end destination (this is where the densifier comes in), it’s essential that this location isn’t too far away.
The styrofoam you want to recycle must be dry and free from dirt, trash, and other contaminants. If any styrofoam you attempt to recycle is dirty, it could contaminate a whole load of recycling. It’s also important to ensure that the styrofoam you recycle is of a high quality.
While this isn’t always an issue, some polystyrene recycling facilities may require that all forms of styrofoam are separated by color. Thankfully, most polystyrene products tend to be white or light blue in color.
Rubicon’s Styrofoam Recycling Solution
Here at Rubicon, we often receive requests from businesses large and small asking questions along these lines: “This material is integral to the way we serve our customers, but we worry about the environmental impact it is causing. Can you help us fix it, and recycle better?”
We love a challenge, and when companies come to us asking for our help in developing a styrofoam recycling solution for their business, we go about finding a solution for their unique situation that takes care to ensure that all of the above points are in place many timers over so we can be sure that recycling styrofoam makes sense for them. For example, if the polystyrene you want to recycle is all the same type of foam, it is of a high quality, and the end user is nearby, but you have an extremely small volume of the material, this won’t work. Similarly, if you have a high volume of styrofoam, but nobody wants to purchase it, this is also likely to fall through.
Of course, as well as helping our customers to recycle their current deposits of styrofoam, we will also work with them to find alternatives to polystyrene (or the material they would like to use less of). With municipalities up and down the country looking to move away from the use of styrofoam products, and in some instances outright banning them, it falls to businesses themselves to seek out these alternatives so to help them move forward in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way.
If you have any questions, or you’re interested in speaking with me about our styrofoam recycling (and other plastic recycling) solutions here at Rubicon, you can reach out to me directly at email@example.com, or contact our sales team at (844) 479-1507.
Meredith Leahy is a Waste Diversion Manager at Rubicon Global. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.