The term “Styrofoam” is actually a Dow Chemical Co. trademarked form of polystyrene foam insulation.
Also known as Expanded Polystrene (EPS) foam, Styrofoam is basically one form of polystyrene plastic. In turn, polystyrene plastic is usually coded as #6 plastic.
Styrofoam is widely used all over the world for various purposes including packing, coffee cups, plates, food trays, fabrication of car parts etc.
Facts about Styrofoam or Polystrene
Only about five percent of a foam package (ie. Styrofoam) is polystyrene. The rest is air.
Styrofoam has many benefits, including insulating quality that helps keep food warm. It is also of light weight, has high durability and strength, making it an excellent packaging material.
Nevertheless, polystyrene (and hence Styrofoam) is made from petroleum. And in its production process, a carcinogenic chemical known as benzene is used. Due to the presence of benzene in Styrofoam, it is inevitable that food in direct contact with the Styrofoam food packaging would be affected. This has been one of the main reasons why over 20 cities in the United States have banned the use of Styrofoam.
Moreover, Styrofoam is hardly biodegradable. In the absence of a suitable solvent, Styrofoam can last almost forever.
When ingested by animals, it often blocks their digestive tracts, causes starvation, and ultimately death. As such, it is important to dispose of Styrofoam carefully.
Styrofoam is often space-consuming. It is estimated that by volume, it takes much as much as thirty percent of landfills worldwide. This situation adds on to the problem of disposing styrofoam.
The process of recycling Styrofoam
The process of recycling Styrofoam involves feeding the collected EPS foam through conveyor belts into a shredding machine.
The shredded EPS foam is then transferred to a plastic extruder where the foam is exposed to heat and pressure to melt the EPS foam. Subsequently, the melted EPS foam passes out through a small outlet at the end of the extruder and solidifies into a continuous form.
This form of EPS can then be easily transported to the required factories for remolding (again using heat and pressure) into its new EPS products.
Check out this video on the Styrofoam recycling process.
Recycling Styrofoam or Polystyrene
When it comes to recycling Styrofoam on a large scale (ie. by the recycling industries), there are also some difficulties.
That is why although some communities recycle polystyrene plastic (ie. coded as #6), very few carry out Styrofoam recycling.
This is because the properties of Styrofoam that make it a useful material – light weight, low cost, durable – make it hard to recycle.
Given the light weight of Styrofoam, the cost of transporting Styrofoam to a recycling plant (given the relatively large volume of Styrofoam per unit of weight) makes it often cost prohibitive to send Styrofoam for recycling.
Styrofoam used in food packaging is usually contaminated and would require cleaning before they can be processed for recycling. This adds further cost to the process of recycling Styrofoam, making it economically less viable.
Fortunately, there are some organizations or manufacturers that collect Styrofoam for reusing and recycling. For example, the Alliance for Form Packaging Recyclers (AFPR) has created a unique mail-back option that allows anyone with small quantities of EPS access to recycling Styrofoam.
Remember to remove all debris from the Styrofoam before breaking it into smaller pieces that fit into a box for shipping. For greater effectiveness when sending your EPS for recycling through the AFPR programs, be sure to check out their guidelines first.
For commercial organizations with larger volumes of Styrofoam that require recycling, AFPR has also been facilitating Styrofoam recycling programs. Such programs are only viable through the development of consistent and reliable high-volume sources of post-commercial and post-industrial EPS waste. Subsequently, the majority of Styrofoam collected for recycling is used in making new EPS foam products or manufactured into other plastic products such as plastic lumber and molding trim.
In recent times, alternatives have been found in the recycling of Styrofoam.
There are solvents that have been found to be able to dissolve away Styrofoam. Examples include pure orange rind oil and d-Limonene.
In fact, in 1997, Sony started a large-scale trial run of its Styrofoam recycling efforts – “Orange R-net” – in Tokyo, and the technology used in the recycling process involves dissolving Styrofoam in d-limonene. According to Tsutomu Noguchi, manager of Sony's Centre for Environmental Technology in Yokohama, 'Orange R-net' is more efficient and produces 30% less carbon dioxide compared to traditional methods of Styrofoam recycling. Also, the recycled product is of high quality, so it could be reused by Sony as an intermediary material for the manufacture of TV sets.
There are some who have found other uses for the dissolved Styrofoam – after the Styrofoam is dissolved in the biodegradable solvent, the resulting mixture is found to be sticky and can be used as permanent glue at home.
Other ways to deal with Styrofoam
Recycling Styrofoam is important. Styrofoam recycling helps to reduce the amount of new Styrofoam that needs to be produced, as well as diverts EPS away from the landfills and incinerators. This is crucial, given the pollution that EPS causes in disposal.
Nevertheless, there are other things you can do.
Instead of having to recycle Styrofoam, one of the best ways to deal with Styrofoam is not to use it at all!
What you can do is to minimize the purchase of products that use Styrofoam. Whenever you can, choose the eco-friendly alternatives instead.
With the realization of the harm that Styrofoam can bring to the environment, in recent times, packaging companies have started to introduce more environmentally friendly packaging alternatives to Styrofoam.
An example is the air cushion packaging used by Storopack, where air-filled film is used to cushion products that need transportation. The air cushions are light (and hence help reduce transportation costs), versatile to meet different packaging needs, and the film is recyclable. So if your company needs to package goods for transportation, why not consider switching to the air-cushions instead of using Styrofoam?
Eco friendly alternatives to Styrofoam packaging for food have also been appearing on the market – i.e. biodegradable food packaging (e.g. take-away lunch boxes) and disposables (e.g. disposable cups, forks, spoons and plates) that are made of corn starch or paper. These biodegradable materials produce less pollution when disposed of in the landfills or incinerators, as compared to Styrofoam.
The next best way to deal with Styrofoam is to reuse it.
When you receive Styrofoam pellets (or EPS “peanuts”), keep them for reuse in the next package you send out. To store the EPS foam, break down the large pieces into smaller chunks and keep them in a bag or box around the house or the office.
Alternatively, donate your EPS foam to a nearby store that would require the EPS for their packaging purposes.
If you belong to a company that disposes of large amounts of Styrofoam on a regular basis, why not consider helping your company make some extra profit by recycling the Styrofoam instead of throwing it away? Alternatively, your company can choose to bale the Styrofoam and sell it to other companies that require the Styrofoam.