If we can recycle Styrofoam cups, does that make these disposable products less of an environmental problem? Spotting a '6' in a triangle on the bottom of these cups, some might assume that Styrofoam can be tossed into the bin with other recyclable plastic packaging. This would, in theory, decrease the amount of Styrofoam that ends up in landfills, and possibly reduce demand for new Styrofoam. The truth is, it's not that simple.

What is polystyrene, and why is it harmful?

Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is commonly referred to as 'Styrofoam', which is actually the trade name of a foam product used for housing insulation. The material polystyrene, which is most often seen in the form of disposable food containers, insulating materials and packing materials, is a petroleum-based plastic. The main building block of polystyrene is a synthetic chemical called Styrene, which has now been described by the U.S. National Toxicology Program as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” As EPS deteriorates, styrene can leach out and contaminate the environment. Polystyrene can also potentially leach toxins into food and beverages.

Styrofoam cupCan Styrofoam cups be recycled?

Americans throw away an astonishing 25 billion Styrofoam cups each and every year. Polystyrene languishes in landfills indefinitely, taking at least 500 years – and possibly much longer – to decompose. Recycling is clearly a far better option. In 2006, the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers reported that 56 million pounds of EPS were recycled just that year. That's definitely good news – but unfortunately, even if your local recycling facility accepts #6 plastics, it may not accept EPS.

The technology to recycle Styrofoam cups does exist. The problem lies partially in a lack of demand for recycled EPS. Collected polystyrene products like cups can't be turned back into new cups in what's known as 'closed loop recycling.' Potentially recyclable plastics are stamped with numbers 1-7, indicating what type of plastic they are. The higher the number, the more difficult the plastic is to recycle. Another obstacle to recycling Styrofoam cups and packaging is that these discarded materials are often contaminated with food and other substances.

What other options exist for Styrofoam disposal?

The first thing to do is call your local recycling center to find out whether they accept #6 plastics. Be sure to ask specifically whether polystyrene food containers are acceptable, as some recyclers don't take them due to contamination. But if they don't accept EPS, you may have to get a little more creative in your efforts to dispose of them in an environmentally-friendly manner.

Check Earth911.com to find out whether there's a polystyrene recycling drop-off site located in your area. If a drop-off site isn't available, you can use a mail-in program such as that offered by the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers.

Styrofoam recycling and disposal options are growing as researchers find new and innovative ways to either break down polystyrene or transform it into something new. Exciting breakthroughs include the discovery of bacteria that can metabolize polystyrene, a new production technique that could turn polystyrene into a biodegradable plastic, and a recycling method called “Styromelt” that can turn even contaminated polystyrene into compact bricks of reusable material. Scientists have also learned that EPS can be dissolved at room temperature when sprayed with limonene, a natural extract derived from citrus peel.

Of course, until these new options are widely available, it's best to avoid using Styrofoam cups when possible. Try to bring a reusable cup wherever you go, or look for some of the eco-friendly cup options that are now available in many locations.

Photo: richardmasoner/Flickr