Products made from polystyrene foam material are staple items in many industries. From restaurants to hospitals to shipping companies to school and work systems, chances are an individual consumer has come in contact with foam products. While these items certainly prove to be a useful convenience during their intended use, many people may wonder how to dispose of a single-use foam item after it has served its consumer purpose. Can it be reused or developed into something to further its lifespan? Several groups and researchers have attempted to answer this question. As a point of reference, when referring to polystyrene foam, consumers often mistakenly refer to it as Styrofoam®, a registered trademark of the Dow Chemical Company.
The ultimate question in regards to this topic is this: Can an item made of polystyrene foam be recycled? And the answer is: Yes. It’s a common misconception that foam products must be bad for the environment, especially when compared to alternative products like paper, because they cannot be recycled. The truth is that polystyrene foam can be recycled, processed, and developed into a new, usable material. In fact, a recent study showed that more foam foodservice products are being recycled in major U.S. cities when compared to their paper alternatives.1 Actually, unbeknownst to many consumers, most paper beverage products – items considered to be the leading alternatives to foam cups – have a plastic or waxed lining which makes them very difficult to recycle.1 Something else to consider: foam products, specifically foam cups, create less solid waste by weight, than paper cups.1 Because of these facts, several U.S. cities facing possible foam product bans due to misconceptions are coming to the conclusion that foam bans are not an answer to excess waste. Implementing foam recycling programs are better community solutions. New York City, for example, is currently reviewing plans to start a foam recycling initiative in order to allow their street food vendors and restaurants to continue using the foam products they prefer.1 By encouraging recycling solutions and education instead of a foam ban, community members are able to reduce the amount of waste sent to area landfills.
The EPS Industry Alliance, an advocacy group for individuals and organizations within the expanded polystyrene (EPS) industry, released a statement that the rate of EPS recycling rose to 35 percent in the U.S. and Canada in 2013.2 This figure represents a total 127.3 million pounds of post-commercial and post-consumer packaging, as well as post-industrial recovery foam that was processed and recycled in 2013.2 This report confirms that the rate of recycling polystyrene foam is up roughly 5 percent year-over-year, and reflects the continual growth of polystyrene foam recycling since 1991.2 Once foam products are collected for recycling, they are sorted and cleaned in preparation for processing. They are placed in a densifying machine that compresses the materials to a fraction of its original size, and made into individual, dense bricks of foam. The bricks are then sent to manufacturers who use the raw material in the production of brand new consumer goods, such as picture frames and architectural crown molding. Continually increasing the recycling rate of polystyrene foam products allows manufacturers to re-use a “single-use” product and purchase production materials that cost substantially less than virgin materials.3
The bottom line is that not only are polystyrene foam products recyclable, but they are often more easily recycled than alternatives and can create new opportunities for manufacturers. Foam items are made for convenience during their original life, and they can be used in new applications after they are recycled.