What Can We Do With Our Used Styrofoam?

That's the question posed by one of our readers. Styrofoam is a DOW Chemical Company brand name version of 'expanded polystyrene' or "EPS". Plastic foams in general can be described as 'engineered air', and are up to 97% air by volume. Although the initial polymer expansion may be accomplished with pentane, C02, or various hydro-flourochemical "blowing agents", all these are dispersed over time, and ultimately replaced with air. Non-foam or "solid" polystyrene is commonly used for such things as cutlery, yogurt and cottage cheese containers, cups, clear salad bar containers and video and audiocassette housings. With one exception, food packaging or utensils, both the foam and the rigid varieties can be collected as one recyclable stream. Your household trash contains little styrene. But retail outlets and cafeterias can produce a great deal of it on a daily basis. The most significant short term residential generation of polystyrene waste will likely be from protective "mold shape" blocks of polystyrene foam that are shipped with electronics, hardware, and appliances.

Now on to the question: what can we do with the residual polystyrene? Bio-polymer based kitchenware items are available if you must use disposable cookware and utensils. Waste polystyrene mold blocks can be carved for making crafts; but, if all you want is to be rid of it in the most responsible way you can, here are some ideas.

Recycling has to be a community effort to have economic sustainability. A municipal entity or polystyrene producer has to sponsor it in other words. More on that later.

The "generator" (you or a commercial entity) must avoid polystyrene contamination with food, staples, tape, and so on. Dirty or comingled EPS is not recyclable.

Best to save polystyrene in a dedicated container for subsequent re-grind and/or baling. You won't be able to compress the foam versions much on your own. Smashing the hard items could lead to injury or a mess.

If you live in Canada, count yourself lucky. Canadian Polystyrene Recycling Association is positioned to help your municipal area get a program going if they don't have one. The Association was founded in 1989 by 24 companies interested in educating the public about the recyclability of post-consumer polystyrene materials. CPRA offers municipalities across Canada a market for all the #6 polystyrene collected in their curbside recycling programs. They are currently North America’s largest producer and marketer of recycled polystyrene resins.

It's different in the US of course. Styrene waste is fed to mad cows (joke). Seriously, if you want to recycle polystyrene in the US you are pretty much on your own. That's the bad news. The good news is that the Polystyrene Packaging Association maintains a partial listing of industrial entities that will accept waste polystyrene for recycling purposes. If you happen to live near one of them and can get your municipal authority to sponsor something (if a program is not already in place) you could be positioned to do something constructive.

For those of you who live outside of North America, we'd love to hear about polystyrene recycling options in your part of the world.

Incidentally, the stats we've seen to date indicate a recycle rate of roughly 10% for this polymer type. Plenty of room for improvement.