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Question: Is Styrofoam Recyclable?

Answer: Yes, most forms of Styrofoam or Polystyrene are recyclable

When it was first introduced in the early 20th century, Styrofoam took the world by storm with its low cost, light weight, and numerous other benefits as a packaging, insulation, and craft material. This polystyrene-based foam is still wildly popular in modern times, but what many people aren’t aware of is its high level of toxicity and the fact that it is hardly biodegradable (in fact next to impossible to get rid of). Still, all hope isn’t lost – recycling Styrofoam (and other brands of polystyrene foam) is the way to go if reducing its use is still a concern.

Styrofoam/Polystyrene – What’s the Fuss All About?

Styrofoam, trademarked by Dow Chemical Company, is a form of polystyrene plastic commonly known as EPS or Expanded Polystyrene Foam. Interestingly enough, polystyrene only makes for about 5% of Styrofoam, the rest is air. Polystyrene is made from petroleum and releases benzene, a carcinogenic chemical, when produced.

Recycling of Styrofoam has become the need of the hour, but its constituents put a kink in the plan. Also, alternatives are only now entering the market and it will be some time before Styrofoam and other polystyrene-based products will cease being produced.

Facts about Styrofoam or Polystyrene

Reasons that make Styrofoam useful:

  • It insulates hot beverages, foods and even homes.
  • It is widely used in the fabrication of car parts.
  • Its low cost, light weight, high durability, and strength make it an excellent packaging material.

Reasons that make Styrofoam Harmful:

  • The benzene in Styrofoam lunch boxes or coffee cups adulterates food or drink, which is the issue that led over 20 cities in the US to ban its use.
  • Causes starvation and death to animals when consumed as it blocks their digestive systems. This makes it imperative for proper disposal of Styrofoam.
  • As mentioned earlier, it is not easily biodegradable. Hence, an estimated 30% of all disposed Styrofoam resides in landfills worldwide, contaminating the earth.

The Basic Process of Recycling Styrofoam

Despite what many people think, Styrofoam and other polystyrene products can be recycled, and here’s an overview of how that’s done:

  • Styrofoam or ESP Foam is placed on a conveyor belt and sent through a shredding machine.
  • The shredded foam is then transferred to a plastic extruder where it melts due to exposure to heat and pressure.
  • A small outlet from the plastic extruder lets out the melted EPS foam which instantaneously cools, starts to solidify, and is then transported to factories where it will be remoulded into new products using heat and pressure.

Recycling Styrofoam or Polystyrene on a Large Scale

  • Recycling Styrofoam on a large scale comes with its own set of unique problems:
  • Recycling needs to be done keeping in mind the exact code of the plastic (in the case of Polystyrene plastic, its code is #6).
  • The very qualities that make Styrofoam useful make the cost of transporting it economically unviable, i.e. its light weight, low cost and large volume per unit of weight.
  • The cleaning and segregation it requires before it is processed adds to the cost.

Advancements of Recycling Styrofoam or Polystyrene

There is a lot of research being conducted on recycling polystyrene and EPS foam, and some recent advancements of note include:

  • Massive organizations such as Alliance for Form Packaging Recyclers (AFPR) have come up with the means to allow anyone (individuals and commercial organizations) who wishe to recycle their share of Styrofoam to do so through a unique mail-back option.
  • Research has led to the use of pure orange rind oil and d-Limonene as solvents that can dissolve Styrofoam.
  • Sony, in 1997, gave recycling Styrofoam a large scale trial run in Tokyo – “Orange R-net.” Research revealed that, when dissolved in d-Limonene, Styrofoam produces 30% less carbon dioxide as compared to the traditional methods of recycling. Recycling results in a high quality product.
  • Once Styrofoam is dissolved in a solvent, the resulting sticky mixture can be used as permanent glue for crafts and industrial applications alike.

Today, packaging companies have started to bring in environmentally friendly alternatives to EPS or Styrofoam. Air cushion packaging, for example, where the product is protected by an air filled film, offers both versatility and recyclability. Biodegradable food packaging made of corn starch or paper has also hit the markets in a big way.

Using an eco-friendly alternative is a good place to start as is the awareness of the pollution that disposal of Polystyrene causes to the environment and the massive part we play in bringing it to an end. Recycling Polystyrene is the next best thing to not using plastics at all!