Polystyrene, or Styrofoam, has long been a sore spot for environmental activists and green-minded consumers. This bulky, lightweight material is cheap to produce and great for insulating beverages and leftovers, but almost all of it ends up in landfills. Yet, despite these environmental concerns, Styrofoam cups and clamshells continue to be widely used. So, what can eco-friendly restaurant goers do to keep Styrofoam out of the trash? First things first: What is Styrofoam, anyway? While it looks different from those coat hangers in your closet or that tub of hummus in your fridge, each is made of polystyrene, also known as plastic #6. To create Styrofoam, which is a particular brand of expanded polystyrene foam, air is injected into heated plastic that, upon cooling, forms the light, sturdy material we all recognize. The very thing that makes these expanded foams useful — all that air acts as a strong, lightweight insulator — is also what makes it difficult to recycle. There are lots of facilities out there that are capable of processing #6 plastics, but few that want to take on the hassle of transporting and processing bulky foams. When recyclers fill up a truck with tightly packed water bottles, they get a full load of recycled plastic they can sell in turn. Fill that same truck with plastic foam, which is mostly air, and recyclers get just a fraction of useful material in return. But just because it is difficult does not mean it cannot be done. Recycling programs for Styrofoam have been slowly building over the last decade, and there are now several options for people looking to get rid of takeout containers the green way. Manufacturers now make densifiers specifically designed to compress plastic foams and make them easy to handle and transport. Some cities (including Los Angeles) have invested in these machines and will accept Styrofoam at drop-off facilities. There are also private companies like The Plastic Loose Fill Council and the EPS Industry Alliance that operate mail-back programs as well as drop-off facilities accepting foam packing peanuts across the country. Unfortunately, neither of these organizations currently accepts food containers, but hopefully as demand for Styrofoam recycling continues to increase, manufacturers and city governments will take up the cause. Are you looking to recycle some Styrofoam products? Use our recycling location search to find a nearby drop-off location.
Tricky Recyclables: Polystyrene
Lots of facilities are capable of processing #6 plastics, but few want to take on the hassle of transporting and processing bulky foams.