Foam: to recycle or not to recycle, that is the question

What floats, insulates, and is 98 percent air? It’s expanded polystyrene (EPS), often mistakenly called Styrofoam™ (Styrofoam is a trademarked brand owned and manufactured by The Dow Chemical Company). But what kind — if any — can be recycled in the Kansas City metro area?

It’s labeled “6”, so it’s recyclable, right?

styrofoamcollage
EPS Foam Block and EPS Foam Mold

EPS is a #6 plastic, but only molds, blocks and coolers can be recycled. Drop them off at ACH Foam Technologies. In order to be recycled, EPS must be white and clean.

Any type of EPS that has had contact with food or beverages — meat trays, coffee cups, egg cartons, takeout containers, disposable plates — cannot be recycled in the metro area. Instead, purchase and use containers that are durable or recyclable.

Styrofoam™ peanuts are also not recyclable in the metro area.

Don’t be fooled by look-alikes

Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) packing foam is often mistaken for EPS. You can tell if it’s LDPE if it is:

  • Labeled PE-LD or LDPE with the number 4
  • Squeezable
  • Bends but does not break

How is EPS recycled?

Is this EPS Recyclable? These items ARE recyclable: molds, blocks and coolers. These items ARE NOT recyclable: meat trays, egg cartons, cups, plates, and bowls, takeout containers, packing peanuts, and LDPE/PE-LD packing foam.

A common way to recycle EPS is through a process called densification: creating dense material from lighter material. Densification is achieved through extreme pressure, applied by hydraulic or electric rams. The air cells in the plastic foam are collapsed, resulting in a great reduction in volume. This process can make EPS foam 50 to 90 times denser. The output is usually formed into continuous, squared “logs”, which can be easily cut or broken into convenient lengths for storage or shipment.

What products are made from recycled EPS?

There are many products made from recycled EPS, including:

  • packing material
  • insulation products
  • park benches
  • door and window frames
  • crown molding
  • picture frames
  • safety helmets
  • flower pots
  • seedling containers

For more information on waste reduction and recycling, visit RecycleSpot.org or call (816) 474-4326.

Initiatives to ban foam food containers

clamshellRemember the McDonald’s “clamshell?”

This icon disappeared 24 years ago, in 1990, which means that  an entire generation doesn’t remember that McDonald’s hamburgers once came in something other than a paper wrapper or box. A number of cities have taken steps to see that more restaurants and food vendors follow suit and stop using disposable expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam  food-service products — often mistakenly called Styrofoam® — such as takeout containers and coffee cups. These containers are favored by the food-service industry because they are lightweight and are good at keeping food warm or cool.

Unfortunately, EPS foam products are not good for the environment. Because the material is brittle and light it tends to break apart into smaller pieces that are easily dispersed by wind and water, contributing to litter. EPS foam is pervasive in the environment, and is difficult to recycle because it is generally soiled with oil, grease, condiments and leftovers. Many communities, including Kansas City, don’t have recycling programs for EPS foam food service products, which means it usually ends up in landfills.

New York City recently became the largest city to pave the way for an eventual ban on these containers. In December, the city’s lawmakers passed legislation to ban foam food-service products if a year-long study finds that the material can’t be recycled effectively. The ban will also include the sale of loose foam packing peanuts.

Berkeley, Calif., and Portland, Ore., were two of the first cities to successfully ban foam food-service products back in the late 1980s. Since that time, nearly 100 cities and towns have banned foam food-service products, 75 of which are in California. Some larger cities that have fully or partially implemented bans are San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Los Angeles, Seattle and St. Paul. Chicago and Washington, D.C., are currently considering bans. Many of these cities also require food vendors to use recyclable or compostable food service ware.

These initiatives have been met with opposition, primarily from foam manufacturers and restaurant owners who claim that alternatives are too expensive and that EPS foam containers account for only a small percentage of the total waste stream. Opponents of foam bans have been pushing for community-wide polystyrene recycling programs as an alternative.

There are no ordinances in the Kansas City area banning the use of EPS foam food-service products — but there are no local options for recycling, them either. So, what can you do?

  • Support local restaurants that use alternatives such as paper, molded fiber (think egg cartons) and plant-based, compostable food service products.
  • Take your own reusable container for restaurant leftovers and your own travel mug to coffee shops (some even offer a discount).
  • Avoid using plastic foam food or drink containers or other disposable products at home or for parties.

Photo by kimubert