Products made from polystyrene foam material are staple items in domestic and international industries. From restaurants to hospitals to shipping services to school and professional organizations, there is a high probability that an individual consumer has come in contact with foam products on multiple occasions during their lifetime. While these items are a useful convenience during their intended use, many question what the capabilities are of a single-use foam item after it has served its purpose. Can it be redeveloped to further its lifespan? As a point of reference, when referring to polystyrene foam, consumers often mistakenly refer to it as Styrofoam®, which is a registered trademark of the Dow Chemical Company.
The ultimate question in regards to this topic is this: Can a single-use item made of polystyrene foam be recycled? And the answer is: Yes! It’s a misconception that foam products are bad for the environment, especially when compared to alternative products like paper, because they cannot be recycled. The truth is that polystyrene foam can be recycled, processed, and developed into a new, usable material. In fact, a recent study showed that more foam foodservice products are being recycled in major U.S. cities than compared to paper alternatives.1 Most paper beverage products – items most would consider to be the leading alternatives to foam cups – have a waxed lining which makes them very difficult to recycle.1 Something else to consider: foam cups create less solid waste by weight than paper cups.1 Because of these truths, several U.S. cities currently facing possible foam product bans due to miseducation have come to the conclusion that foam bans are not an answer to excess waste. Banning one material will simply replace that product with another in terms of waste. The better alternative to this is to implement a progressive foam recycling program. New York City, for example, is currently reviewing plans to begin a foam recycling initiative in order to allow street food vendors and restaurants to continue using the foam products they prefer.1 By encouraging recycling solutions and education instead of a foam ban, community members are able to aid in reducing the amount of waste sent to area landfills and keep product costs low for local establishments.
One area currently benefitting from a successful foam recycling program in Texas is the Fort Hood military post in Killeen, about a two-and-a-half hours’ drive south of Dallas. The community’s Fort Hood Recycle Center generated roughly $1.4 million in 2013 alone, and plans to continue to generate more revenue by incorporating further recycling initiatives in and around the area.4 The initiative is all part of the base’s bigger plan: being a completely waste free environment by the year 2020.4 According to Mike Bush, the military post’s Director of Public Works, polystyrene foam played a large role in allowing the community to recycle 765 tons more material than it did in the previous year.
Foam recycling is an initiative that is consistently growing, specifically throughout the U.S. and Canada. The EPS Industry Alliance, an advocacy group for the EPS industry, released a statement that the rate of EPS recycling rose to 35 percent in the U.S. and Canada in 2013.2 This figure represents a total 127.3 million pounds of post-commercial and post-consumer packaging, as well as post-industrial recovery foam that was processed and recycled in 2013.2 This report confirms that the rate of recycling polystyrene foam is up roughly 5 percent year-over-year, and reflects the continual growth of polystyrene foam recycling since 1991.2 Once foam products are collected for recycling, they are sorted and cleaned in preparation for processing. They are then placed in a densifying machine that compresses the materials to a fraction of its original size and made into individual, dense bricks of foam. The bricks are then sent to manufacturers who use the raw material in the production of brand new consumer goods, such as picture frames and architectural crown molding. Continually increasing the recycling rate of polystyrene foam products allows manufacturers to re-use a “single-use” product and purchase production materials that cost substantially less than virgin materials.3
The bottom line is that not only are polystyrene foam products recyclable, but they are often more easily recycled than alternatives and can create new opportunities for manufacturers. Foam items are made for convenience during their consumer, single-use life, and alternative solutions once recycled.