Foam Industry to Florida: Don’t Toss Your Foam, Recycle It!

The foam industry is taking aim at its critics, seeking to educate Florida’s citizens about the benefits of polystyrene foam while promoting foam recycling across the state. Industry insiders say that despite the fact that the average American comes in contact with foam every day in the form of food take-out containers and lunch trays, very little is understood about foam and the recycling opportunities it presents throughout Florida.

The industry points out that although polystyrene foam is often referred to as Styrofoam, the two products are distinctly different. Styrofoam is a registered trademark of the Dow Chemical Company that is used for insulation, while polystyrene foam is used almost exclusively in food packaging products.

The biggest misconception is that polystyrene foam is not recyclable. In fact, it’s 100% recyclable, and there are dozens of recycling centers across the country, including four in Florida. Recycled foam is reused in picture frames, garden nursery trays, rulers, and architectural molding. Furthermore, when foam is cleaned, ground down, and heated, manufacturers can use it for insulation and as a component of solar paneling and windmill blades.

Florida already has four foam recycling locations that receive foam from schools, community recyclers, supermarkets, hospitals, manufacturing plants, cafeterias, and individuals.[i] The state has the capacity to expand on that number and could open more foam recycling centers or outfit standard recycling centers with foam recycling equipment. According to an October 2014 report from the EPS Industry Alliance, the recycling rate of polystyrene foam climbed to 35% in 2013. It’s up nearly 5% year-over-year and has steadily climbed since 1991.[ii]

One Florida organization is reimagining the business of foam recycling. Crush Recycling – a family-owned-and-operated Miami Gardens business – picks up foam from customers free of charge, densifies it, and then sells it to the domestic market. They’ll even buy large quantities of used polystyrene from restaurants and other businesses. The recycled foam is repurposed for picture frames.

More often than not, people have misconceptions about the chemical makeup of polystyrene, and the way that it is manufactured. Polystyrene is not made with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or other ozone-depleting chemicals. In fact, CFCs have not been used by the industry since the late 1980s, and Dart Container Corp. has never used them in molded foam products.[iii] Foam products are made when air and polystyrene encounter a “blowing” or “expansion” agent. Similarly, no regulatory body has ever classified styrene – the monomer that polystyrene is made from – as a human carcinogen.

Another misconception is that foam products are filling up landfills across America, when in reality, foam foodservice products make up less than 1% of landfill waste (by both weight and volume), and significantly more paper cups end up in landfills than their foam counterparts.[iv]

Many people recommend compostable products as a more environmentally friendly alternative to foam. However, compostable products must go to an industrial composting facility in order to decompose properly, as landfills are designed to discourage moisture, sunlight, and oxygen – the crucial elements in decomposition. Oftentimes compostable products end up in landfills and, unlike foam, their improper biodegradation can lead to release of harmful methane gas or leachate, which contaminates groundwater. It is also important to note that all paper products are not biodegradable. Paper cups are generally coated in plastic in order to retain liquid, which creates additional strain on environmental resources.

[i] [ii] [iii] Alexander, Judd H. In Defense of Garbage. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1993. 55. [iv] United States Environmental Protection Agency, Municipal Solid Waste in the United States 2010 Facts and Figures, November 2011, Table 3

Environmentally Friendly Foam Recycling