Chances are, many of the mail-ordered gifts arriving this time of year are nestled in polystyrene foam packaging. In many communities, expanded polystyrene (referred to as EPS or Styrofoam™) is not allowed in curbside recycling carts or accepted at local dropoff locations.
Why is that? In spite of all the recyclability claims, foam packaging was engineered for cheap disposability, not recycling. However, in some large retail warehouse and manufacturing settings, clean, consistent, uncontaminated foam can be collected, densified, stored, and shipped for recycling. So it is recyclable in some situations. With the right conditions, EPS recycling can offset the cost of disposal and save companies money.
But, the opposite is true for municipal recycling. Collection trucks pack and break foam into small, statically charged pieces that scatter, sticking to carts, falling onto streets, and blowing into storm drains. The foam blocks that survive the trip in the packer trucks can then be broken as the truck unloads, as large front loaders push tons of materials into piles or, later, as materials are sorted. Ultimately much of the EPS that is wrongly tossed into community recycling programs ends up as a contaminant. Curbside collection of EPS can be unreasonably expensive and, thus, impractical.
“Loose fill” packing peanuts are also common this time of year. While most recycling programs don’t accept them either, some local shipping stores will reuse them. To see if your community has a location that accepts used packing peanuts, go to the EPS Industry Alliance and click on “Find an EPS Recycling Location” at the top of the page.
And what about those EPS holiday party plates, clamshells, cups, or bowls? And did you know that those popular red beverage cups and other disposable cups like them are also made of polystyrene? They are #6 PS (polystyrene) plastic and it is rare to find them listed among collected recyclables.
Do your holiday best to give gifts and serve meals without using expanded polystyrene foam. Unless your community collects this material, if you use these items you’ll need to put them into the trash or wash and reuse them. Just don’t mix them with your recycling if they are not accepted in your local recycling program! As always, check with your local solid waste management authority to learn which materials are collected in your community and how to prepare them.
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