As bans on single-use plastic bags and straws gain momentum across the globe, attention is now focused on another mighty environmental opponent: styrofoam. Styrofoam poses serious health concerns for aquatic life and the general health of the planet, which is no surprise, given that it’s made of thousands of pieces of non-biodegradable plastic.
While the material is less commonly accepted at recycling facilities than paper or plastic due to the high costs and energy use required to recycle it, with a little extra effort, it’s still possible to recycle styrofoam if you find yourself with stray cups or takeout containers. So how exactly do we ethically rid ourselves of the dreaded foam?
First things first, it’s a common misconception that all those packaging materials, disposable cups, and plates are made of styrofoam. In fact, all of that material is actually referred to as expanded polystyrene. Styrofoam is similar, although less flexible, and used in insulation and construction (and typically blue rather than white).
Styrofoam has become an umbrella term used to describe all expanded polystyrene products, accurately or not. For the purposes of this story, we’ll refer to all styrofoam products as EPS.
Like any recyclable material, it’s important you know a few basics before disposal:
- Most EPS products are identifiable by the number “6” emblazoned on them (hence that they’re otherwise referred to as No. 6 plastic products).
- Contaminated or dirty EPS products (like those that have come in contact with food) may be more difficult to recycle. It’s likely best to quickly rinse any food containers with water.
- Different colors of styrofoam sometimes matter. Some facilities may reject them or require that they are separated based on color.
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Check with Your Local Recycling Program
If you want to recycle some EPS products, the natural first step is to do a quick online search for the recycling program operates in your town, and/or contacting them to find out whether they accept this type of waste. And if so, be sure to ask how styrofoam collection works. They may require that they be separated from other recyclable materials. San Diego, California and Greensboro, North Carolina are just a few examples of cities that offer the option of recycling your EPS materials.
While drop-off sites may accept them, those pesky packing peanuts may be harder to recycle. Most packing peanuts are made of EPS, but some companies have adopted cornstarch to create a biodegradable alternative, which is virtually identical to the EPS version. Accordingly, some facilities may refuse to recycle peanuts, simply out of fear of contaminating their other EPS recyclables.
If your local recycling facility doesn’t take peanuts, you can contact your local UPS store to find out whether they accept them for reuse.
Drop It Off at a Center Near You
If you’re unsure whether your curbside recycling program accepts EPS—or you find out that it doesn’t—do the next best thing and drop your EPS products off at a nearby recycling site that does accept the problematic material. Using Earth911’s website, you can locate the closest facility to you that accepts styrofoam and other recyclable material.
We all should! The U.S. is currently diving head-first into a literal trash heap of a problem; China, one of the largest importers of our recyclable material, recently banned the import of our trash, creating an influx of garbage staying on our landfills.
Accordingly, we should all be aware of our impact on the environment now more than ever. And while being mindful of our own EPS usage is an important first step, larger-scale policy measures are crucial towards curbing the problem, as well. So when you’re done recycling your own styrofoam, consider lobbying your local elected officials for a ban, as well, if your hometown doesn’t have one in place already.
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