Just over 15 million tonnes of polystyrene is made each year.
With all that new material constantly entering the world, knowing if polystyrene is recyclable is an important question for an environmentally-minded person.
We all know polystyrene as that white, super lightweight, kind of spongy, foam-like material. It can come as polystyrene sheets, in little balls or peanut shapes, or as a container. In the modern world it’s uses are numerous – from takeaway food and drink containers, lids and wall insulation to bean bag filling and used as sheets to keep appliances well packaged. It’s even used to safely transport organs and medicines.
With the widespread use around the globe, let’s find out if you can recycle polystyrene.
Can you recycle polystyrene?
The simple answer is that yes you can recycle polystyrene.
In fact, uncontaminated polystyrene is 100% recyclable. It’s thought around 100 tonnes of polystyrene is recycled in the UK each year.
However, there is a but to all this good news.
It’s not very easy or convenient to recycle polystyrene. Most local councils will not accept polystyrene in the recycling stream and therefore will not collect it from your home.
To the everyday person, you have to go out of your way to ensure that any polystyrene in your possession is recycled. This is because there aren’t many specialist facilities in the UK that deal with it.
So, polystyrene is recyclable but you can’t recycle it at home because of the lack of local facilities.
This issue is with the infrastructure, or lack of it. To any eco-conscious person, as I guess you are, this is disappointing.
Can you put polystyrene in the recycling bin?
Unfortunately, no you cannot put polystyrene in your household recycling bin.
This is the case for most people in the UK. Some councils may accept polystyrene, but I think these are few and far between.
You can check by heading to Recycle Now, search for polystyrene and put in your postcode to see if there are any nearby facilities. I checked numerous cities and locations across the UK and found nothing.
There are a number of reasons why local authorities will not accept polystyrene as a recyclable material.
- Specialist equipment is needed to break polystyrene up and compact it into blocks – this equipment is expensive
- There is no real incentive for councils (or private companies) to invest in polystyrene compactors and the facilities to go with it
- It’s a difficult material to collect – it’s very light but because it’s expanded, it takes up a lot of space. As it would enter a facility mixed in with other materials, it would also be difficult to separate and collect in big enough quantities to compact together
The advice from my local area (Greater Manchester) is to put polystyrene into the general waste bin. This is not really the advice I’d like to hear as an environmentally conscious person. Hopefully one day we will be able to put polystyrene in the recycling bin.
What is polystyrene made of?
You may be wondering what polystyrene is actually made out of. Is it environmentally friendly and can it be dealt with in another way?
Polystyrene is a type of plastic polymer.
You may also know it as Styrofoam, which is a brand name for a type of expanded polystyrene, or EPS. The majority of the polystyrene you see in everyday life is EPS.
It is a synthetic material made from aromatic hydrocarbons – in simple English, polystyrene is made from fossils harvested from deep within the Earth. I explain some of the plastic making process here.
The primary raw material used to make polystyrene is benzene, a natural chemical found in crude oil, coal and natural gas.
Benzene is treated with ethylene and after a number of other intensive, industrial processes you end up with styrene. Many of these are bonded together to form poly-styrene.
Despite the numerous industrial processes, polystyrene is cheap to make. Because of this millions of tonnes are produced each year.
Is polystyrene biodegradable?
As a synthetic plastic material, you may not be surprised to find out that polystyrene is not biodegradable.
Unlike some other plastics, polystyrene is also resistant to photo-oxidation, which is the breakdown under light and oxygen.
It would take hundreds, possibly thousands of years to fully degrade in nature. Even then the plastic would only break down into smaller pieces of plastic – microplastics – where it would infiltrate and persist in all manner of ecosystems.
How to recycle polystyrene?
If polystyrene won’t degrade and it can’t be recycled at home or through your local authority, how do you recycle polystyrene?
It’s unfortunate to say, but you can recycle polystyrene with difficulty.
An awful lot of companies are happy to manufacture polystyrene in the UK but not many are willing to take responsibility for it afterwards. This is both a shame, irresponsible and not sustainable. It shows how out of balance many companies are with our natural environment.
In order to recycle polystyrene, you will have to find a private company who have a compactor and who will accept the material.
There are other issues too, such as how do you clean contaminants and grease off the polystyrene before recycling it?
As it is technically recycle, some companies actually claim polystyrene to be a green and environmentally friendly material. I wouldn’t believe the green eco-washing for a second.
Can recycled polystyrene be used afterwards?
Polystyrene does have a number of secondary uses and there is a good market for recycled polystyrene.
Once the original polystyrene has been shredded and either pelletised and compacted into blocks or briquettes, it can then be used to make items such as recycled plastic planks, benches and outdoor furniture products.
Recycled polystyrene can be used to make smaller items such as clothes hangers, toys, seedling containers, plant pots and picture frames.
You can also use small amounts of polystyrene at home to re-stuff bean bags (or make your own), in packaging for any breakable items you might be sending in the post or as drainage at the bottom of your plant pots.
Wrap up on is polystyrene recyclable
The bottom line is that polystyrene is technically recyclable, but the problem is that it’s very difficult to do so.
If more polystyrene is to be recycled, the UK needs to invest in the necessary machinery to be able to make this widespread. Currently we just don’t have the facilities and infrastructure to deal with it.
With advancements in this area, the next step is to be able to recycle polystyrene at home in your recycling bins. Many people want to recycle but to get full public buy in, it needs to be made convenient.
Some polystyrene manufactures do offer a recycling service, which is good to see as it’s so rare, but in reality this should be the norm.
So unless you want to put polystyrene in your general waste bin, you will have to make arrangements on your own in order to recycle polystyrene.