The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that Americans throw away about 1.3 billion tons of solid waste each year.
Of this amount, roughly half is recycled. In fact, the EPA reports that Americans recycle nearly 45 percent of their household trash.
That’s why we’re being encouraged to recycle more and more. And it’s not a bad thing.
Recycling reduces the demand for virgin raw materials and helps prevent pollution from landfills. It also saves energy and conserves natural resources.
But what if you’re still unsure whether something can be recycled or not? Usually, there should be some sort of label on the packaging.
But this isn’t always the case, especially with filler materials like styrofoam. Styrofoam is in most packages, yet there are a few times when it’s labeled.
This is because styrofoam isn’t the main product and is considered excess. So the big question is, can styrofoam be recycled?
If it could be, that would save tons in landfill waste. If not, well, that landfill is going to be full to bursting. So let’s find out.
To figure out whether styrofoam is recyclable, first, we need to look at what it is exactly.
What Is Styrofoam?
Styrofoam is a common material used in the packaging and food service industries.
Styrofoam is a type of polystyrene foam that has become widely used in commercial applications because of its light weight, durability, insulation properties, and ease of handling.
The material is made by polymerizing styrene monomers using heat and pressure. It is then cooled and cut into various shapes.
It’s usually sold as small pieces called pellets. These are often used as packing material in shipping containers, building insulation, and other products.
They are also used in making disposable cups, plates, bowls, and trays.
What Is Styrofoam Made Of?
Polystyrene can be made from several different sources. All of them contain styrene monomers.
These include cornstarch, wood pulp, cotton fibers, paper, rice hulls, and peanut shells.
These include styrene, divinylbenzene, and benzophenone.
In addition to being made from natural or synthetic sources, polystyrene can also be produced from petroleum.
How Does Styrofoam Work?
Polystyrene is an organic compound found naturally in plants and animals. It is one of the world’s most abundant plastics.
Polystyrene is made up of long chains of carbon atoms joined together by chemical bonds.
When these molecules are heated and pressurized they rearrange themselves into new configurations.
This process creates a three-dimensional structure known as a polymer. When the temperature drops, the polymer cools quickly and becomes rigid.
This makes polystyrene very useful in many different types of applications including insulation, packaging, and construction.
Is Styrofoam Recyclable?
Styrofoam is recyclable. This is because polystyrene is also biodegradable.
Its breakdown occurs through a combination of biological processes and physical degradation.
Some organisms use enzymes to break down polystyrene into smaller components. Other organisms rely on microorganisms to decompose the plastic.
Physical degradation involves breaking the styrene molecule apart. This happens when the material is exposed to sunlight, water, or high temperatures.
The only problem is that it takes too long to break down. In fact, it takes about 100 years for half of the styrene to degrade.
However, once it does start to break down it will eventually disappear.
The solution to this is called Expanded Polystyrene.
Expanded Polystyrene (EPS)
Expanded polystyrene is a form of polystyrene that has been expanded. EPS is more durable than regular styrofoam.
It is also lighter than styrofoam, and is, therefore, easier to recycle.
There are two ways to make EPS:
- By adding a blowing agent to styrene during production.
- By heating styrene until it expands.
Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages.
Addition Of Blowing Agent
This method produces EPS that is slightly less dense than normal styrofoam. However, the downside is that it is harder to handle and requires additional processing steps.
This method produces EPS with a higher density than normal styrofoams. However, it is much easier to work with.
Expanded Polystyrene And Recycling
Expanded polystyrene is a lot quicker to biodegrade than normal polystyrene. This is because it is less dense and contains more air pockets.
As a result, it breaks down faster. Once it starts to break down, it will continue to do so until all the styrene is gone.
There are currently four different recycling systems used to recycle EPS. The first system uses a shredder to reduce EPS into small pieces.
These pieces are then fed into a centrifuge where they are separated based on size.
The second system uses a sieve to remove any large pieces of EPS. Then, the remaining material is put into a crusher which reduces the EPS further.
The third system uses a vibratory screen to separate EPS from other items such as paper.
Finally, the fourth system uses a flotation machine to separate EPS from other materials.
Recycling Typical Styrofoam
Normal styrofoam is recycled by taking the foam apart and separating the styrene from the rest of the plastics. Then, the styrene is recycled separately.
The process is similar to how EPS is recycled. First, the styrene is removed from the foam. Then, the styrenes are separated from each other.
Finally, the styrene is sent back to the manufacturer for reuse.
How To Recycle Styrofoam
Recycling facilities can be a bit picky with the kinds of material they accept, so it’s always best to use sites like Earth911 to check the policies of your local plants when it comes to styrofoam.
If a plant near you accepts styrofoam, they’ll either have a collection point, or you’ll have to deliver your waste directly to the facility.
Now you know that styrofoam is recyclable. Though it may take a while to biodegrade, it is still biodegradable.
And EPS is much quicker at breaking down. Recycling your styrofoam is an incredibly effective way of reducing your waste.
One way to reduce your waste is to buy products that are designed to last longer. For example, you should avoid buying disposable cups.
Instead, choose reusable ones. You can also purchase products that are made from biodegradable materials. These include things like bags, plates, and utensils.
And ALWAYS RECYCLE where you can. By doing these small things every day, we can all make a positive impact on the planet.