The Recycling Detective: Styrofoam

By catalyst

Polystyrene foam (aka Styrofoam): The Recycling Detective stalks a ubiquitous villain and learns the difference between “recyclable’ and “recycled.”
by Melissa Martin
Detective's Notebook

This month I was on the case of polystyrene foam -that which we glibly, and inaccurately, call Styrofoam, the Dow-trademarked variety invented in the 1940s for use as a building material and Navy and Coast Guard life rafts. A noble intention. But a villain lurks within: Styrofoam has a longer life expectancy than I do, also longer than my children and theirs. This stuff is the worst of the worst when it comes to degrading; it pretty much doesn't. My carry-out lunch lives on in ways I don't even want to think about.

Polystyrene is plastic. In other words, it comes from petroleum. Studies done by the EPA found styrene, the single molecule form of polystyrene, in fat biopsies of 100% of the human samples they tested.

Hmm. Think I'll bring my own mug next time.

It may not be so good for me but those polystyrene coffee cups, takeout food containers and meat trays can all be recycled, right? Many bear the recycable emblem.

However, my research gave me conflicting information. So I decided to take a tour of Rocky Mountain Recycling. I wanted to see whether  the polystyrene I was putting in my bin was being recycled.

If you live in Salt Lake, your recyclables are probably ending up at the plant I visited. Rocky Mountain Recycling is a private company with plants all over Utah. The city picks up the contents of our blue bins and brings it to these experts. They collect, sort, bale and sell all the lovely items.

Well, it turns out, not all the items. I met with John Wilson, the plant manager, to get the scoop on polystyrene.

"Right now one of our biggest prohibitions is [polystyrene]," said Wilson. He could see the pang of sadness on my face. "I can't believe they still make the stuff. But we do get a lot of it here, and we have to send it to a landfill."

Here is where it gets confusing. The City of Salt Lake encourages us to recycle polystyrene, even though at the moment it doesn't get recycled. Why not? Because not enough comes in to provide a saleable volume. The city actually needs more people to put polystyrene in their bins so they will have to recycle it.

There's a big problem here. Polystyrene is bad for the environment and bad for people's health. It makes more sense to avoid it all together. This is another instance where we need to remember our R's: Rethink, reuse, reduce, recycle. How about another R: Refuse. When it comes to polystyrene, after rethinking, a smart conclusion is to refuse to use it.

Most of us probably find ourselves face to face with polystyrene at restaurants when getting take-out or at the grocery store when buying packaged meat. Some restaurants use plastic or paper board containers for take out. Even McDonalds switched from its clamlike styrofoam containers to paper wrappers years ago. We can ask other restaurants to do the same.

Change is possible but we may need to lead the way. If your favorite restaurant is still using styrofoam containers, ask them to change. Nicely, but every time you go there.

As for the packaged meat, go to the meat counter and ask the butcher to wrap your items and skip the foam. I recently had this conversation with my butcher. Not only did he oblige me, but I got to have a meaningful conversation with an otherwise complete stranger when he asked "Are you allergic to styrofoam?" After I explained my feelings he was more than happy to cut me a fresh piece of meat minus the foam.

Besides its uses in the food industry, polystyrene is also used to ship and pack products in many forms from big blocks to packing peanuts. Some companies have switched to other more recyclable materials, so do your research before you buy. UPS stores will usually take foam peanuts off your hands if you end up with any, but no other forms of polystyrene foam are accepted.

As you can see, this is a complex and dicey issue. Bottom line: Avoid polystyrene foam as much as possible. When you do use it, recycle it in your big blue bin. Because if you do, it has a chance of possibly getting recycled. If you don't, no chance.

As I began to write the conclusion for this column, I found myself craving Indian food. While I drove to the restaurant to pick up my takeout, my head was clouded with thoughts of how to rid ourselves of the villain. The sky was dark; big gray clouds were coming over the mountains and rain was due. I got out of my car with my bag of Indian food. I had an eerie feeling that I was being followed, so I hurried into my house and locked the door. The delightful aromas of the food calmed me as I opened the bag. I took out the chicken sagg, chicken mahkani, and flat bread. I reached into the bag for my jasmine rice. Aaaaaagh! I screamed as I touched the container. It stared up at me, its white pale face mocking mine. My jasmine rice was enclosed in a white styrofoam case.

"Can you recycle this?"

In October, Catalyst introduced "The Recycling Dectective," a column dedicated to answering your most difficult disposal dilemmas. Readers sent in some great questions. Please feel free to send yours for future issues.

Q: When recycling cardboard, do you need to remove staples, tape, glue or labels first?                               -Greg

A: There's no need to remove items like staples, tape or glue before recycling cardboard or plastic. You don't need to rinse off your recyclables, either.

Q: Can you recycle soy milk cartons, frozen food bags, metal lids and plastic produce and shopping bags?-Kevin

A: You can recycle all of these items. Soy milk cartons don't carry a recycling symbol, but our city's recycling plant does recycle them. If the carton has a plastic spout, cut it out. (You can recycle the spouts as well, but it's best if they are separate.) Plastic frozen food bags can be recycled; the same goes for plastic produce bags. Lids, from metal to plastic, are all recyclable. When recycling small items like produce bags try to bundle them together so they don't blow away.

By the way, last month we reported that a city official told us not to recycle paper coffee cups and carry-out containers due to the plastic coating. The recycling plant manager, however, tells us they just sort them with the cardboard; so they're okay-though still not nearly as good as carrying your own cup.

If you have a burning question for the recycling detective, email and we'll get to the bottom of it.

NEXT MONTH: How area restaurants are addressing the carryout container question.

This article was originally published on January 1, 2008.