Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is “packing” a punch against our environment. This type of plastic has a #6 recycling symbol on the bottom and can be made into disposable utensils and cups, coffee lids, and takeout clamshells. EPS is most commonly known by its branded name, Styrofoam, and is manufacturer’s top choice for protecting, insulating, and shipping products. The features that make it so appealing for manufacturers to use are exactly the reason recycling companies cannot accept most products made from it (Miller, 2016).
Is EPS recyclable? Technically yes, but feasibly no. While most Polystyrene #6 plastic products will have a recycling symbol imprinted on them, the majority cannot be accepted. The recycling symbol on products is purely for marketing purposes and illustrates that the product contains a certain percentage of recycled content – not that the product can be recycled again. Recycling facilities can accept #6 disposable plastic cups and yogurt containers, but cannot accept Styrofoam disposable cups, trays, and packaging.
Cost-effectiveness, transportation, and equipment are a few of many factors affecting recyclability of EPS. Recycling EPS is not economical because of its design. Manufacturers see the profit of recyclables in terms of weight; which is calculated in “per-pound” increments (Miller, 2016). Being lightweight, it takes large quantities of EPS to cover the cost of transportation, handling, and processing; resulting in high processing costs outweighing profitability. EPS is made of approximately 95-98% air and only 2-5% plastic content (Somerville, 2017). In order to efficiently transport the product, it has to be condensed to remove the air. Equipment used to perform this process can be costly. Condensing, by either heating and extrusion, or compression must be performed at the point of generation to eliminate handling and transporting loose, bulky material. Each method allows for better cost-effective shipping since buyers for this product are limited and resign mainly in overseas countries (Miller, 2016). We must keep in mind that the benefits are not always derived strictly from the sale or value of the material. Considerable disposal costs can be reduced by removing this material from the waste stream since light bulky materials are expensive to dispose of.
Looking for help with your packaging problems? The solution may take a little effort, but Loraas suggests going back to the basics. To begin, education yourself by checking out our “What Can Be Recycled” section of our website to find out more about the Loraas single-stream program in your community. Second, refuse to buy products with excess packaging and look for EPS-free packaging options. Buy eggs in cardboard cartons rather than Styrofoam or use plastic bread bags as a stuffing, instead of Styrofoam packing peanuts when shipping a parcel. Third, if this is not plausible, try reusing your EPS packing for an alternative purpose. Styrofoam packing bricks act as an excellent insulating material for your greenhouse. Fourth, household EPS waste such as packaging peanuts and electronic protection cannot be placed into your recycling carts, however, it can be taken to the few local participating dealers. Visit SWRC.ca to find a location close to you. Finally, voice your opinion to manufacturers and ask for alternative solutions to EPS packing such as eco-friendly, sustainable mushroom packaging. Together we can “protect” our environment on the long bumpy road to sustainability and reducing consumer consumption waste.