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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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!