Styrofoam containers are one of those innovations that seemed like a great idea at first. The material is lightweight, affordable, holds temperature well and keeps packages safe during shipping without adding costs for more weight. But all its advantages come with a disadvantage, one so big that it doesn't seem to outweigh the pros: it's not biodegradable. That makes it a difficult product to recycle, but thankfully, there are a few options for people who want to avoid (or delay) styrofoam's path to the landfill.
What is Styrofoam?
You may be surprised to learn that what you're likely thinking of when you refer to styrofoam isn't actually the trademarked Styrofoam product. Styrofoam is a light blue extruded polystyrene foam that's typically used as building insulation. But the name styrofoam is colloquially applied to expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. EPS is used to make a wide variety of "styrofoam" products, including disposable food containers, packing peanuts and coolers.
Though affordable, lightweight and great as insulation, styrofoam products place a huge strain on the environment. For one, they're not biodegradable, so some experts estimate that the products could live on the planet for centuries. This takes up valuable space in landfills — as much as 25 to 30 percent of the materials in the world's landfills are styrofoam. Since EPS breaks into small pieces easily, some disposed styrofoam products miss landfills entirely and instead end up polluting our oceans and putting marine life at risk.
Additionally, the process to make styrofoam uses petroleum, meaning that the making of styrofoam uses up a valuable limited resource and creates emissions that contribute to the climate crisis.
Because of the environmental cost of styrofoam, some cities and states have made efforts to ban the use of EPS products. Others have tried to incorporate some type of styrofoam recycling program into their trash management systems.
Since styrofoam isn't biodegradable, almost no municipalities accept it with the other materials that you might include in your recycling, such as aluminum cans or glass bottles. But some cities have facilities where they do their best to repurpose EPS, and some include drop-off centers where you can take your discarded styrofoam.
Sometimes large shipping companies will accept styrofoam packing peanuts for their own use. You can also see if your local grocery store accepts packing peanuts to reuse.
Check the location map under the EPS Industry Alliance website's Packaging tab to see if you live near one of these facilities or drop-off centers.
If you can't find a polystyrene foam drop-off center near your house, you could always consider creative new ways to reuse or upcycle styrofoam in order to get more use out of it rather than sending it straight to the trash.
If you receive a package with styrofoam packing peanuts, you can keep them to reuse next time you send someone a package. Or, you could use them in your own storage of fragile items or when packing for a move to prevent items from breaking.
Styrofoam food containers are also easy to clean and reuse. That can be especially helpful if you're going somewhere where you don't want to bring nicer containers that could get damaged or if you're bringing food to a friend in need and don't want them to have to worry about returning Tupperware.
If you have kids, you can also consider turning styrofoam into an art project. Old coolers or large takeout containers are great canvasses for artwork. They can also be easily cut into fun shapes like swords or lightsabers so kids can have make-believe battles with a safe and lightweight material.
Rachelle Dragani is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn with extensive experience covering the lifestyle space. Her work on topics including smart home technology, pest control, living green, budget home repair and helpful household tips have appeared in publications including Bob Vila, Esquire, Popular Mechanics, Gizmodo and Yahoo.