What you and I refer to as styrofoam is actually expanded polystyrene (EPS). Styrofoam is the brand name of The Dow Chemical Company’s extruded polystyrene, often used in construction for insulation, which is sturdy and dense. What most people call styrofoam—such as the material take-out boxes and shipping peanuts are made of—is actually expanded polystyrene, and has nothing to do with The Dow Chemical Company’s product. For the purpose of simplicity, we’ll continue to call expanded polystyrene styrofoam here.
Styrofoam is a type of plastic, but it’s not recycled in many places. Styrofoam products will even have a recycling symbol on them, but this is meaningless to many recyclers who prioritize plastic items that are large, sturdy, and made of high-quality material. In Spokane County, styrofoam products should be placed in your trash bin, unless you are taking it to a designated recycler. (Styrofoam recyclers can be found at spokanewastedirectory.org
.) Though there are a few select vendors who accept styrofoam for recycling in our area, it cannot be recycled at any of the region’s transfer stations
, where it is treated as garbage. If styrofoam is really just plastic, then why isn’t it recycled at Spokane County’s transfer stations or in curbside recycling containers?
Though styrofoam is a plastic, it is mostly made of air. To make styrofoam, hard polystyrene beads are heated with steam or hot air until they begin to expand, eventually expanding to more than thirty times their original size. This expansion means that styrofoam makes a lot of material while using relatively little plastic—a wonderful feat if you’re trying to create a lightweight and insulating material. When you’re trying to recycle a material, however, you want to be as efficient as possible and generate new materials without investing a lot of energy. Because styrofoam creates a large mass of material with very little plastic, it becomes energy-intense to transport and melt it back down to make new materials.
To recycle styrofoam, you need an extruder that will melt it down to a solid material. The nearest facility that can do this is on a commercial scale is in Renton, WA. When styrofoam goes through this process, it is reduced to about 1/90th its original volume. So, if we were to fill up a whole 2,694-cubic foot semi-truck with styrofoam, it would only yield about 30 cubic feet of recycled material. Realistically, packing a whole truck with a very lightweight material, transporting it several hundred miles away and only getting about 1% of the original volume in recycled material, is hardly worth it financially or environmentally—it would be like shipping air!
In addition to the inefficient nature of recycling styrofoam, it is also difficult to sort in our local recycling facility. Styrofoam’s lightweight nature makes it challenging for machines and operators to pick it out from other materials, and it becomes a pesky contaminant that slows down the recycling process and limits efficiency.
There is good news, however. It may be disappointing to have to throw away a material that is indeed recyclable, but in Spokane County most garbage is sent to the Waste to Energy Plant
. At this facility, trash is incinerated at temperatures well over 2,000°F, ensuring that materials such as styrofoam are burned completely, and minimal pollutants are released. Burning styrofoam at temperatures below 1,800°F can release toxic and harmful gasses, but temperatures and chemical treatment processes at the Waste to Energy Plant prevent this pollution from being released into the air.
On a larger scale, many people are working to limit the use of styrofoam in our daily lives. Though it is an excellent material for insulation and lightweight packaging, the difficulties it poses to recycling and the harmful environmental toxins related to its production and eventual degradation have lead cities in the US to restrict its use. San Francisco, for example, has some of the toughest legislation
, nearing an almost complete ban on the material for use in food packaging.
A state-wide or regional ban on styrofoam is not likely to happen soon in our area, but you can reduce the amount of it in your life through several simple steps. When shopping online, prioritize retailers that do not use styrofoam packaging. At restaurants, ask if there are alternative take-out containers to the typical styrofoam varieties, or bring your own. Refuse styrofoam cups when possible, buy eggs in paper cartons, and choose paper plates if you need disposable dinnerware.
As always, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. And when you’re unsure if an item is recyclable, follow the motto: “When in doubt, throw it out!”