I think the majority of citizens of the modern world understand the merits of recycling well enough that they participate, as long as it is made convenient for them. The availability and access to recycling services have all but eliminated excuses for responsible people to recycle at least a portion of their waste materials on a daily basis. Unfortunately, there are still some products for which the “perceived” effort of recycling still leads those less passionate about protecting our environment to simply choose to put it in the trash.
Expanded polystyrene is a very common packaging material that shows up nearly everywhere. It is a special processed version of the commonly known recyclable plastic #6. The process of expanding this plastic leads to a very lightweight product that is over 95% air. While this is an attractive feature for companies seeking lightweight, sturdy materials for shipping and finishing of their products, this presents a waste management nightmare. In 2015, the polystyrene foam recycling center in Sedona Arizona processed 6.68 tons of expanded polystyrene. The extremely high volume to weight ratio of EPS means that there is a massive amount of this stuff to be dealt with each year across the country, and the numbers will only increase.
Recycling centers, such as the one in Sedona, can effectively recycle the most common beaded polystyrene foam materials. The recycling process compacts the material, making it much more dense and much more cost effective to ship for reprocessing. This material can then be molded or re-processed into CD cases, packing materials, or any number of the common EPS uses. The process can be labor intensive and at times unprofitable, but the benefits are priceless. With increased funding for programs such as these, tens of thousands of tons of EPS could find a new purpose instead of further clogging this country’s landfills.
Of course, one of the best ways to combat this problem, which cost nothing, is to simply re-use polystyrene foam materials. Many recycling centers will accept used polystyrene foam egg crates not for recycling, but to be donated to local egg farmers to be sterilized and re-used. The same can be done at home with used carryout food containers. They can be washed and stored for carrying lunches to work or storing leftovers.
With a little effort and awareness, EPS recycling and reuse can become mainstream and accepted as well as traditional plastic recycling and the issue of discarded polystyrene foam can be greatly reduced.