Plastics are notoriously difficult to recycle compared to many other materials, but scientists and researchers are continually finding new and improved ways to send less to landfill. Humanity has become hooked on the benefits of plastics, and only now are we really seeing significant efforts to reduce plastic waste.
Recycling polystyrene is possible, however putting it into your plastics recycle bin is unlikely to result in it being recycled. Most councils around the UK now offer the service through Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) collection points.
Where Is Polystyrene Used?
Most of us think of unpacking white goods, computers and TVs when polystyrene gets mentioned, but the sprawling uses of the material is vast.
To make things a little cloudy, it’s sometimes referred to by different names, but broadly they all refer to the same thing. Styrofoam and plastic foam trays are a couple of good examples.
Let’s consider these and other commons uses of polystyrene, before I get to how best to dispose of it responsibly.
Fridges, freezers, washing machines, tumble dryers and dishwashers are a few examples of what we collectively term white goods that often get delivered encased in a lot of polystyrene.
TV manufacturers need to ship their products in a way that keeps them in the centre of the box to prevent damage. Unlike the huge cathode ray tube (CRT) television sets of days gone by, the slightest tap on modern flat screen TVs can result in some serious damage.
Polystyrene proves great protection to TVs in transit, but not such a great service to planet Earth.
Like TVs, computers and laptops contain delicate components that need protecting, so manufacturers of them often choose plastic packaging types to make sure they arrive in perfect condition.
Mobile Phones & Tables
In the last ten years or so, the meteoric rise of Apple devices shows just how keen we all are to have the latest tech in our hands on the move as we are to have the best devices at home. Apple themselves are doing a great job at moving to cardboard packaging, but other brands haven’t all made the switch just yet.
Delivery Box Fillings
If there’s something that really annoys be about deliveries, it’s opening a box to find hundreds of little plastic foam shapes filling the box around whatever I’ve ordered. That’s especially infuriating if whatever I’ve ordered isn’t fragile in the slightest as it’s a complete waste of plastic.
These little pieces never needed to be made in the first place, and now we’re going to have to use energy somewhere else to dispose of them carefully again.
A huge contributor to polystyrene use (and waste) is food and drink. Food trays, take away containers and coffee cups are some of the most common examples, as polystyrene is watertight and great at insulation to keep hot contents hot.
Companies like McDonalds have shown the lead with making their packaging more sustainable, however a massive number of small independent shops and takeaways are still reliant on plastics.
How To Dispose Of Polystyrene
Confusingly, some councils accept polystyrene in plastic recycling bins, but don’t then actually recycle it. Others don’t take it at all, other than in general waste destined for landfill.
If you have polystyrene to throw away, then there’s not likely to be much you can do to reuse it. The only real solution is to find an EPS recycling point (that’s Expanded Polystyrene). The alternative is simply to put it in your general waste bin. It’s not a fact I like, but there are very limited options.
IF you’re lucky, you might live in an area where bins are available, often at or next to recycling sites. This might be a supermarket car park, or possibly even at a council HWRC. If you’re lucky enough to have this service locally, it’s an effective way to remove a lot of waste from landfill that would otherwise take centuries to degrade.
Why Is EPS Recycled?
There are two motivations behind recycling polystyrene, to reduce landfill use and to create new materials. Let’s look at each in turn.
Preventing Polystyrene In Landfill
Plastics are very slow to break down, and to make things worse can also release pollutants as they do so. More importantly, we need to move away from disposable culture, choosing to make use of re-usable materials in the first place.
Typically EPS materials are manufactured into shapes to perform a very specific task, such as transporting a new television, so aren’t really practical later for any other use in the same form.
While it doesn’t fully justify human reliance on plastics like this in the first place, it’s very lucky that there is a long term use for plastic waste from expanded polystyrene.
The biggest one is building insulation. As I said earlier, EPS is really good at containing heat, so insulation is a perfect way to re-use the material.
The problem here is the materials need to be clean to be re-used, and as a lot of the EPS sources for recycling is food packaging from takeaways, there’s commonly grease or juices let on the polystyrene after use.
It’s best to find out whether these will still be usable in your area for collections when the skips are emptied – some waste processing firms will be better than others at cleaning it before processing.
Clean Waste Is Better Waste
If food contamination is a problem, while it’s not ideal, you can still use the service to dispose of all the non food packaging as a huge number of TVs, computers and appliances are bought across the UK every day.
Every time someone recycles a product’s packaging, that’s one less set that ends up going into landfill and buried in the ground. What’s more, it could be helping someone to be more energy efficient in their home, office, shop or factory through the creation of insulation, offsetting the environmental damage that is caused by all that plastic that’s not being recycled.
Polystyrene is undoubtedly a very useful material across a wide range of industries, but it does create a massive problem for waste disposal, due to the sheer scale of uses and amount produced. By being as responsible as we can with disposing it, we’re part of a damage limitation exercise until a better solution is discovered.