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What to Do with Styrofoam: Essential Answer

By Andrew Hellman

Q: On all the recycling bins at our waste facility and in the information we get from the people who pick it up, we are told that we can't recycle styrofoam. What do we do with it?

Asked by Joe Bates, Gr. '71, Noblesville, Ind.


It's good to hear that you still want to do something with the bulky white stuff. Many people assume that the only option is the trash—I know I have. But with just a little effort you can sell it, recycle it or even make it into glue. Yes, glue.

First, a little clarification. What we often call "styrofoam" is actually expanded polystyrene, or EPS. "Styrofoam" is a trademark of the Dow Chemical Company and it refers to a material that is similar to, but different from, EPS.

That molded white stuff surrounding a new TV and those annoying packing peanuts?that's EPS. Though you may toss it aside to get at what's inside, it's important that you don't just send EPS to the dump, where it sits for a long, long time. It doesn't biodegrade, but EPS is recyclable; collection companies just can't transport it economically. With a little effort though, it can be put to better use. Here are three ideas:

Sell it! Nothing beats earning cash for trash. The American Chemistry Council has a list of companies that buy EPS (and other plastic types) and will recycle it. I got a quote for $2.80 per pound for EPS with a label reading "CA Redemption Value"?which is anything but peanuts to a grad student like me. If you find a decent rate, you may even want to organize a local recycling program. The Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers has a guide to get you going. You probably won't get rich, but during this economic downturn, doing a good turn may supplement a few meals.

Donate it. Go to Earth911.com, type in "polystyrene" and your zip code, and it will tell you where your closest drop-off site is. The Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers (AFPR) has a list of centers that will accept your excess EPS via mail. Admittedly, either of these options will cost you money in gas or shipping (up to $9 for shipping according to AFPR), but the EPS will be recycled into office supplies or insulation instead of being dumped into a landfill.

True to annoying form, however, those problematic packing peanuts aren't accepted at these recycling centers. For those, you can turn to the Plastic Loose Fill Council, which will let you know if there is a drop-off center in your city, or give you a list of centers in your state. You can also call their tasty-sounding Peanut Hotline at (800) 828-2214 for the same information. I did, and got the addresses of the three centers closest to me from a polite automated lady.

Glue-ify it. Your grandma sends you a vase, but only half of the EPS mold was included. Instead of a vase, you get 20 pieces of porcelain. Enter d-limonene, a natural oil from the rinds of citrus fruits that is often used for cleaning. Add this "orange oil" to the EPS and you'll get a sticky substance that can help you reassemble your vase.

Though it may take a little time, research and possibly money on your end, there is no need to trash your EPS. Instead of becoming part of the waste stream, it could turn into a nice, clean revenue stream.


Andrew Hellman is a PhD candidate in biology.

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