Most people know paper and cardboard are recyclable. Most will also know glass can easily be recycled without any waste products being left behind. Yet one of the most common items that regularly causes confusion is polystyrene.
Go outside on recycling day and you’ll see lots of recycling bins and cartons with polystyrene items in them.
Chances are you will notice just as many general waste bins with black bags of rubbish for the landfill that also has polystyrene in it.
So, who is correct? Is polystyrene recyclable, and is there anything we should know about it? And can businesses recycle it if they can find the right service?
Yes, Polystyrene is a type of plastic.
That’s great, you might think – lots of plastic products can be recycled. Tonnes of it are collected and recycled every day. The main thing to remember is to wash it before you put it out to be recycled.
The UK uses 275,000 tonnes of plastic every year. Around 40kg is binned by the average family each year – 40kg that could easily be recycled. Approximately 100 tonnes of expanded polystyrene (otherwise referred to as EPS) is recycled every month in this country. However, not all councils accept EPS for recycling. It depends where you live, so while one person might find they can recycle their polystyrene, someone living in the adjacent council area may find they cannot.
Furthermore, it is not the easiest item to recycle. The machinery required to do this would be costly and difficult to build. The size of much of the waste polystyrene we amass also makes it complex to collect, even though it is very lightweight.
To understand this question, we need to understand what polystyrene is. Polystyrene is a synthetic chemical compound made from the monomer styrene. It is usually transparent, although it can have colour added to it, and it can be either solid or foam in form.
Styrofoam is simply a commercial brand of polystyrene. It only comes in the foam form and is usually coloured light blue. Therefore, if you have foam polystyrene which is light blue, it is likely to be Styrofoam.
Another way to tell the difference is to consider what it is being used for. Polystyrene is usually used as packaging or disposable food and drink receptacles whereas Styrofoam is often used in building and construction.
One of the main reasons polystyrene is good for packaging is because it is very light, which means it does not add more weight to the item, but it is very strong when it is compressed and can absorb the shock if the item is dropped or knocked.
Polystyrene is also inexpensive to produce in contrast to other packaging materials such as cork, straw or timber, which means it is a cost-effective choice for businesses.
When considering whether polystyrene is recyclable, you need to determine whether the polystyrene you have is classic polystyrene or ‘expanded polystyrene’.
Because polystyrene is a plastic that is formed from styrene (a liquid hydrocarbon), it is not able to be recycled. However, the new type of expanded polystyrene can and should be recycled, and in fact, around 100 tonnes of expanded polystyrene is recycled in the UK every month.
Unfortunately, it is highly likely that if you mixed your expanded polystyrene in with your other recyclable plastics it would not actually be recycled.
However, some councils do have facilities to recycle expanded polystyrene, and some retailers will take away your polystyrene packaging to reuse themselves.
If possible, try to use old polystyrene packaging as cushioning in your own packages or when moving house. Any way to reuse and recycle old polystyrene packaging is good for the environment and prevents it from going to landfill.
Although recycling is considerably better than sending items to landfill, reusing or repurposing items is one step better than recycling.
Here are four ways you can reuse your polystyrene items:
2.If you’re into gardening, polystyrene cups are a great size for planting seedlings if you make a few holes at the bottom for drainage. You can also use polystyrene foam in the place of pebbles or gravel to help improve soil drainage in plant pots.
3.Polystyrene food trays can be used as either an artist’s palette or a canvas to paint on. The slightly shiny surface means paints can be washed off easily and the tray can be reused.
4.Packing peanuts can be used to stuff toys, beanbag chairs or pillows.
Technically, if heated enough in the sun, for example, polystyrene will begin to break down. However, most polystyrene ends up piled up in landfill where it is not exposed to sunlight, and so it can take an extremely long time to break down. For this reason, polystyrene is not considered to be biodegradable.
When polystyrene is sent to landfill, it can take up to 500 years for a single piece of it to decompose. When thinking about the amount of polystyrene that is used in the UK every month, and the fact that most polystyrene consists of disposable items, the negative impact on our environment must be taken into consideration.
When considering the impact of polystyrene on the environment, one must acknowledge that polystyrene tends to be a disposable product, which can result in millions of tonnes of polystyrene heading to landfill each year.
As polystyrene is not biodegradable, this has a severe impact on our environment. The impact of polystyrene use should be considered carefully, and alternatives sought out where possible. It is important to reuse and recycle polystyrene as much as possible and to reduce the production and use of it in packaging and manufacturing.
In general, when used as packaging and to contain food and drink, polystyrene is not toxic to humans. However, research has suggested that when polystyrene is heated up, it can cause it to break down and leach harmful chemicals. This is why it is not recommended to reheat food in polystyrene containers.
Avoid purchasing anything with polystyrene used as packaging if possible
It makes sense to limit the goods we buy that use polystyrene in the packaging. If your business has polystyrene waste then talk to Business Waste about how we can help recycle it
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