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The Challenges of Recycling Styrofoam


All About Styrofoam

I was at a fast food restaurant the other day, and I noticed that the drink I ordered was in a Styrofoam® cup. Generally, I try to avoid places that use Styrofoam, but so many places use it for food and drink containers that it’s difficult to avoid sometimes.

As I was leaving, I noticed the restaurant had something I hadn’t seen before—a recycling bin for Styrofoam cups!

This was surprising because I had previously done some research to find out if I could recycle Styrofoam, and I learned that it wasn’t accepted by all recycling centers, and for the places that did accept it, it was still a bit challenging.

Here are some other things I learned during my research:

What Is Styrofoam?

What we refer to as Styrofoam is actually the trademarked name for expanded polystyrene (EPS), a thermoplastic, lightweight material that is used to create everything from disposable beverage cups to packing materials.

Americans throw away roughly 25 billion Styrofoam cups per year, and once they’re disposed of, they can take hundreds of years, if not longer, to decompose in landfills.

With most materials that are so abundant in our society, recycling is often the best option to prevent EPS from contributing to our ever-growing pollution problems.

There are a few challenges with recycling Styrofoam, however:

1. It Takes Up a Lot of Space

Styrofoam is 98% air, so it takes up a great deal of space. Any company involved in recycling EPS products has to account for that extra space when storing and transporting the material. Also, because most of it is air, recyclers must collect a tremendous amount of it in order for it to be economically viable.

2. Contamination

EPS is easily contaminated with food or drinks it may have contained, and as a result, many recycling facilities will not accept it. Many recycling companies will also not accept Styrofoam packing peanuts, or any wet, squeezable or spongy EPS products, because as soon as it mixes with other materials, it becomes difficult to sort.

3. Health Concerns

The foundational ingredient used to make Styrofoam is called polystyrene, which is used to manufacture plastics, resins and rubber. The EPA and International Agency for Research on Cancer have established styrene and benzene (two toxic substances found within polystyrene) as possible human carcinogens and neurotoxins, especially for those who are exposed to them during the product manufacturing process.

What Can We Do?

It’s great news that the restaurant I mentioned earlier recycles foam cups, as there are very few other restaurants who participate in this recycling practice. They currently offer foam cup recycling at 25% of their locations, and have indicated that the foam cups are recycled into things like insulation and even park benches.

However, because of the harmful impact of EPS to our environment, several cities in the U.S. have already banned restaurants, stores and manufacturers from possessing, selling or offering plastic foam containers and packaging made with polystyrene.

With this in mind, one of the best things that environmentally conscious consumers can do is to reduce or eliminate the use of Styrofoam altogether.

If using Styrofoam is a necessity, then try finding restaurants and recycling centers that offer to recycle EPS products, instead of throwing them away.

As an eco-friendly alternative, try bringing a reusable cup wherever you go, and using products that are manufactured from renewable resources or contain biodegradable materials to ensure that your Styrofoam cups and containers don’t end up in a landfill for centuries.

Have you made the switch from Styrofoam to a more eco-friendly alternative? Feel free to share your thoughts in the section below – we’d love to hear from you!


How Styrofoam is Bad for the Environment
Recycling: You May Be Doing It Wrong
Recycle Styrofoam cups: Is it possible?
Styrofoam to Be Banned in New York City Beginning July 1

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Amy Hepfner
Amy Hepfner(@amylmh)
6 years ago

I avoid Styrofoam as much as possible. I have never liked the taste of beverages in a Styrofoam cup. So glad most places are banning it. Thanks for the article!!

Linda Johnson
Linda Johnson
6 years ago

I’m glad that many places have gone away from using styrofoam.Think about all the little children who have used styrofoam cups and couldn’t help but bite into the sides, perhaps even ingesting it… toxic chemicals! My son has never been able to even handle the feel & noise Styrofoam makes. I guess that was a good thing cuz it made us not use it!

6 years ago

I have never given styrofoam a second thought. Thank you for the article and making me more aware.

6 years ago

I always try to take a reusable cup to church for coffee… Styrofoam definitely downgrades the flavor of beverages anyway!! And happily, while using it, many others over time have commented what a great idea that was, and have made the switch too!

6 years ago

It is great to see so many people using bpa free, reusable glasses now. Information has made a great change.

David Masterson
David Masterson(@djm00)
6 years ago

Would love to see more restaurants offer a BYO cup programs.

Dee Poe
Dee Poe(@dpoe56)
6 years ago

I’m going to see if i can byoc, bring my own cup, when i get sodas at the places I like.

TK - Admin
TK - Admin(@teresa-kulupka)
6 years ago
Reply to  Dee Poe

great idea Dee!

Hope Beach
Hope Beach(@hbeach)
6 years ago

I’m so glad my grocery store offers recycling for styrofoam. I hate to bring it home but I never finished my meal at restaurants. I wish they would use cardboard everywhere.

Cheri Wright
Cheri Wright(@cheri-wright)
6 years ago

I resent any establishment that uses styrofoam and will not enable them by supporting them. They serve food in styrofoam, I do not eat there 🙂 Everyone needs to be held accountable to helping our environment.

Leslie Martinez
Leslie Martinez(@lesmtz)
6 years ago

Styrofoam is often burned when people go camping. I always educate them how harmful it is to our environment and their health to do such a thing. I always buy paper for camping.

Gingi Freeman
Gingi Freeman(@domesticgeekgirl)
4 years ago

Had no idea on the recycling… need to add this to my “things to avoid” list!

Kate Mckinney
Kate Mckinney(@katemckinney23)
2 years ago

I really don’t like how styrofoam feels against my skin or lips! I really hate when I get take out or to go food that it comes normally in Styrofoam instead of paper a hard plastic that I could possibly reuse at least once