Can You Recycle Styrofoam? Exploring the Challenges to Sustainable Alternatives

Yes, Styrofoam can be recycled, but relatively few local schemes accept it. Additionally, Styrofoam that is contaminated with food, drink, or other materials may not be suitable for recycling.

Because of this, it is often better to reuse Styrofoam or, better yet, avoid using it in the first place.

What is Styrofoam?

It is useful to understand what Styrofoam is because the recycling schemes that accept it can be picky about what they’ll take:

Styrofoam is a trademarked name for one type of Polystyrene and a part of the Number 6 plastics group.

Although Styrofoam is often used as a catch-all name for all Polystyrene, it is actually a specific brand of Extruded Polystyrene, or XPS. It is typically blue and primarily used in the building industry for insulation.

Most other polystyrenes are Expanded Polystyrenes, or EPS – you’ll recognize these as the white packaging material made up of many small beads bonded together, but it’s also used for cups, as insulation, and even in surfboards.

You can spot recyclable Styrofoam products by looking out for the #6 plastics logo:

#6 plastics logo

Why Is Styrofoam Bad For The Environment?

Styrofoam is bad for the environment because it is non-biodegradable and because it floats.

Styrofoam waste often ends up in the sea, where the packing peanuts, food containers, trays, and disposable cups become one of the main causes of marine debris.

Additionally, Styrofoam production uses HFCS (Hydrofluorocarbons). These are less damaging to the Ozone Layer than CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons), but still a cause for concern.

As a plastic, Styrofoam is produced using petroleum, the production of petroleum has a significant environmental impact because it creates a lot of pollution.

Finally, the sheer volume of Styrofoam and other polystyrenes is a problem for disposal, these plastics might only make up 1% of waste by weight, but they take up 30% of the space.[1]

How Is Styrofoam Recycled?

Recycling polystyrene and Styrofoam involves shredding it, heating it and then putting it under pressure until it forms a paste.

This paste is then cooled into dense blocks. These blocks can either be used to create new materials or used as-is in other products such as picture frames.

Unfortunately, styrofoam recycling is more expensive than making new materials from scratch, so many businesses still don’t bother.

It is unlikely that a widespread recycling program will be offered until it is more financially beneficial to recycle.

Where Can I Recycle Styrofoam?

Unfortunately, Styrofoam and other polystyrenes are rarely accepted in a standard curbside recycling program, so you can’t just put it in your recycling bins because it will just end up in landfill.

You have a few options:

Option 1: Find a local recycling center that will accept it

Recycling guidelines vary depending on your location and the capabilities of local recycling facilities.

In some areas, curbside recycling programs accept clean and dry Styrofoam, while others require residents to drop off their EPS waste at designated recycling centers.

It’s essential to research your local recycling regulations and follow the appropriate steps to ensure that your Styrofoam waste is handled correctly.

Option 2: Look for a drop-off point

Some commercial zones have drop-off points for polystyrene recycling.

You might also have luck with large local stores. In the US, for example, polystyrene is accepted by the Publix chain, who have a drop-off recycling program (we advise you check before you visit incase the store has changed its policy since this article was written).[2]

Option 3: Arrange pickup

If you are a business with a large volume of Styrofoam, you could work with a recycling company to arrange a pick-up.

If you have a smaller volume you could band together with other businesses or members of your community to reach the required volume – they won’t want to come for just a few food containers.

Option 4: Mail it back

If you are in the U.S. you can mail your waste Styrofoam back to the EPS Industry Alliance and they will recycle it. This will cost you postage and packaging.[3]

3 Ways You Can Reduce Your Home’s Styrofoam Usage

Recycling is good, but reduction is even better:

1. Replace Polystyrene Cups With Biodegradable Alternatives

Our huge thirst for on-the-go hot drinks make polystyrene cups a big problem – an incredible 99.75% of these cups are never recycled.[4]

If your home or business uses these, you should swap them out for biodegradable alternatives.

If you’re a consumer, you should invest in a reusable Keep Cup so that businesses don’t have to give you a disposable one (some coffee chains even give a discount if your bring your own cup).

2. Buy From Companies That Don’t Use Polystyrene Packing

Many companies are becoming more environmentally responsible and replacing their packaging with either biodegradable packaging or alternatives that are more easily recycled and/or recycled themselves.

Dell, for example, is committed to making as much of their packaging more environmentally-friendly.

They provide precise instructions on how to best dispose of the different types of packaging they use and provide details on how they source it.[5]

3. Use Recyclable Insulation When Insulating Your Home

Recycling your home is a great way to reduce both your energy usage and your bills, but some insulation materials aren’t recyclable and are made from non-renewable sources.

Sure, they’re going to be in your home for a long time – but not forever! Then what?

Instead, ask your contractor to recommend a green alternative. There are loads of options, insulation can be made from:

  • Recycled bottles
  • Recycled glass
  • Cellulose
  • Jute
  • Sheep’s wool
  • Recycled cotton

Can’t Recycle Styrofoam? Here Are 4 Tips For Reusing It

Styrofoam lasts forever, so if you’ve already got some you should consider reusing it. Here are a few ideas:

1. Use Styrofoam In Plant Pots

Do you put stones in the bottom of your flower pots to improve drainage? Styrofoam can be just as good.

Either use packing peanuts as they are or break larger pieces into smaller chunks. You’ll get great drainage and the flower pot will be a lot lighter and easier to move around.

2. Make Your Own Bean Bags

These could be anything from the small ones that children throw around to an entire bean bag chair – how ambitious are you feeling?

3. Use It For More Packaging

There’s a reason Styrofoam is used for packaging – it’s great at it. Instead of throwing it away, store own supply ready for when you move to a new house or need to send someone something.

This lowers your waste and stops you needing to buy more packaging materials later.

4. Use It In Crafts

With a little bit of imagination there are tonnes of applications for you or your kids to use leftover packaging in crafts.

You’ve got to be a little bit careful with this one though – where is it heading after you’ve finished?

If it’s something you’ll keep forever, great – but if it’s heading for the trash that doesn’t really count as reuse!

Are There Any Alternatives to Styrofoam?

Yes! There are lots of alternatives to Styrofoam, the only issue is getting companies to use them.

Here are a few:

  • Corn-Based – Corn-starch packaging material is sustainable and safely dissolves in water.
  • Mushrooms – Biotech company Ecovative Design use mycelium (mushrooms roots) to bind hemp into all kinds of structures, including packaging.[6]
  • Recyclable Plastic – Products made from plastic that is more readily recyclable (better, but not ideal).

There are plenty more! Next time you see a brand or store you use implementing Styrofoam containers or packaging, why not send them a letter asking them to switch?

Typically, the decision to use Styrofoam or other another Polystyrene is down to cost, community pressure can show a store that it makes sense to change – they don’t want to lose your business.

You could also consider writing to your local council to request they add it to your curbside recycling program – you never know!

I am Jennifer, a fervent animal lover, and a dedicated vegan. Am the person behind the I offer insights, advice, and personal stories that have inspired many in their journey towards a plant-based lifestyle. My journey into veganism has also been coupled with a love for writing. I used this passion to share my vegan experiences, to educate others about the benefits of plant-based living, and to advocate for animal rights. Find out more about me on the about page.