Stop Throwing Styrofoam in the Trash (and Do This Instead)

Stop Throwing Styrofoam in the Trash (and Do This Instead)
Photo: Pnor Tkk, Shutterstock

Styrofoam remains a ubiquitous material for takeout containers, disposable coffee cups, and protective cushioning for fragile items during shipping. The material — called expanded polystyrene or EPS — keeps your food and beverages hot and your packages safe, but unfortunately, it’s pretty bad for the environment. It takes up a significant amount of space in landfills and is believed to take centuries to decompose (meaning it’s essentially not biodegradable).

EPS also isn’t easily recyclable — though we know even recycling may not be as environmentally friendly as we’re led to believe — which means we often end up tossing it in the trash. However, there are a few ways to reduce leftover styrofoam’s landfill real estate. Here’s what to do with it instead.

How to recycle styrofoam

It is possible to recycle EPS, though not usually with the rest of your plastic and cardboard. Imagine tiny pieces of broken-down packing peanuts sticking to literally everything, and you can understand why. However, Earth911 maintains a database of recyclers of all kinds of materials — simply type in “EPS” and your zip code to find those that take specialty plastics, or simply do a quick Google search. Make sure you call ahead to confirm what they accept.

How to sell styrofoam

Selling EPS to recovered plastics companies is a little bit like gathering coins for bottles and cans — you won’t get much for it, but at least it’ll be reused or recycled. Plasticsmarkets.org can help you find companies that buy scrap plastics. Granted, there aren’t many options, and some don’t accept materials from consumers, but you could call and ask what they recommend.

Where to donate styrofoam

Packing peanuts aren’t that common in commercial shipping, but if you happen to have a box, your local UPS, FedEx, or family-owned mail store may accept a donation, especially during busy shipping seasons. Alternatively, schools and community centres may be able to reuse clean styrofoam for art or garden projects.

How to reuse styrofoam

Styrofoam in all forms can have multiple lives, whether for its intended use or in a more creative (but practical) form. Because it insulates so well, you can use it to keep things hot or cold — packing peanuts, for example, could stand in for ice in a pinch. Blend up a stack of food containers to make DIY packing peanuts or filler for patio pillows. Cut holes in a sheet of shipping styrofoam to make a floating drink holder. You can also start your indoor plants in clean EPS cups, or use it as a base layer in your pots before adding soil on top.

Comments

  • Polystyrene foam is one of the most environmentally disastrous plastics there is, it blows out of landfills, pollutes waterways and kills many aquatic animals. It doesn’t break down and can persist in the environment for centuries. No-one should be buying anything in single-use foam containers.

    Before you buy takeaway, ask them what containers they use, and if they say foam, then say “thanks, but no thanks”, and leave. There’s always another take-away place, and the ones using more eco-friendly containers are more likely to be serving healthier food anyway. You are 100% responsible for the things you buy, so don’t bloody well buy it!

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