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Is Expanded Polystyrene Recyclable – Eco Guide

Imagine you’re unpacking that shiny new gadget you just bought, and as you pull it out of the box, you find a lightweight, white, and slightly squeaky material protecting your precious new toy.

This material, known as expanded polystyrene (EPS), is a common and essential component in packaging, insulation, and more. But, have you ever wondered whether EPS is recyclable?

In this article, we’ll dive into the world of EPS recycling and explore how this seemingly omnipresent material can be given a new lease on life.

What is EPS and how is it used?

EPS is a rigid, closed-cell foam that is made by expanding polystyrene beads with the help of steam. This process creates a lightweight material that has excellent thermal insulation properties and shock absorption capabilities.

Consequently, EPS has become a popular choice for various applications, including protective packaging for electronics, appliances, and fragile items, as well as insulation for homes, commercial buildings, and even coolers to keep your beverages cold during a hot summer day.

Environmental Challenges

Expanded polystyrene (EPS), commonly known as Styrofoam, is a lightweight, insulating material widely used in packaging, including food containers. However, EPS waste poses some health and environmental hazards.

Chemical leaching

EPS can leach harmful chemicals, such as styrene, into food and beverages, particularly when heated. A study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology (Biedermann et al., 2010) found that styrene migration could occur from EPS containers into food, posing potential health risks.

Carcinogenic potential

Styrene, a primary component of EPS, has been classified as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Prolonged exposure to styrene has been linked to negative health effects, including headaches, fatigue, and respiratory issues, according to a review in Environmental Health Perspectives (Koppel et al., 2017).


Like other plastic materials, EPS waste can break down into microplastics, which can accumulate in the environment and enter the food chain. A study in Environmental Science & Technology (Eriksen et al., 2014) estimated that over 5 trillion pieces of plastic debris exist in the world’s oceans, posing a threat to marine ecosystems and human health.

Impact on wildlife

EPS waste can be mistaken for food by marine animals, causing injury or death when ingested. A review published in the journal Environmental Pollution (Gall and Thompson, 2015) highlighted the severe consequences of plastic waste ingestion on marine life, including entanglement and death.

Landfill space and air pollution

EPS waste takes up considerable landfill space due to its low density and slow degradation rate. When burned, EPS releases toxic pollutants such as carbon monoxide, styrene monomer, and other hazardous substances. A study in the journal Atmospheric Environment (Wang et al., 2007) found that waste incineration, including EPS, could emit harmful air pollutants that contribute to air pollution and human health risks.

Challenges of EPS recycling

EPS might seem like a wonder material, but it comes with its own set of challenges when it comes to recycling. The lightweight and bulky nature of EPS can make it difficult to transport and store.

It takes up a significant amount of space, making it more expensive to transport to recycling facilities compared to other recyclables like paper or glass.

Moreover, contamination of EPS can also hinder its recycling process. When EPS comes into contact with food residue or other materials, it becomes harder to recycle due to potential contamination, which can ultimately affect the quality of the recycled product.

EPS recycling methods

Despite these challenges, EPS can be recycled through various methods, each with its own benefits and drawbacks and the types of products that are accepted for recycle.

Product Description Recyclable?
Styrofoam packaging peanuts Small foam pieces used for packaging and cushioning No
Styrofoam take-out containers Food containers for take-out and delivery food Not widely (check local recycling guidelines)
Styrofoam cups and plates Cups and plates for hot and cold beverages and food Not widely (check local recycling guidelines)
Styrofoam insulation Insulation material for buildings and homes Not widely (check local recycling guidelines)
Styrofoam coolers Insulated coolers used for keeping food and drinks cold Not widely (check local recycling guidelines)
Styrofoam packing material Foam blocks and sheets used for packing and shipping goods No

Mechanical recycling

Mechanical recycling involves grinding EPS into small particles, which can then be incorporated into new products like picture frames or crown molding.

This process is relatively straightforward and cost-effective, but the resulting products are generally of lower quality than the original EPS material.

Chemical recycling

Chemical recycling breaks down EPS into its constituent components, primarily styrene monomers. This method allows for the production of high-quality recycled products, but it is more complex and energy-intensive compared to mechanical recycling.


Pyrolysis involves heating EPS in the absence of oxygen, converting it into a liquid or gas that can be used as a fuel or raw material for other products.

Although this method offers a way to recover valuable materials from EPS, it requires specialized equipment and can generate harmful emissions if not properly managed.

Success stories of EPS recycling

There are numerous examples of countries, cities, and companies that have successfully implemented EPS recycling programs. For instance, in Japan, an extensive EPS recycling network has been established, with recycling rates reaching up to 30%.

Companies like Walmart and IKEA have also implemented EPS recycling initiatives, demonstrating that businesses can play a crucial role in reducing EPS waste and promoting a circular economy.


EPS is a versatile and widely used material that presents unique challenges when it comes to recycling. By understanding these challenges and exploring innovative recycling methods, we can help reduce EPS waste and contribute to a more sustainable future.

It’s time to raise awareness about the importance of EPS recycling and encourage participation in recycling initiatives. Together, we can make a difference.


Can expanded polystyrene go in recycling?

Yes, expanded polystyrene can be recycled, but not all recycling facilities accept it. You should check with your local recycling facility to confirm if they accept EPS and follow their guidelines for proper disposal.

Why can´t polystyrene be recycled?

Polystyrene can be recycled; however, its lightweight and bulky nature, as well as potential contamination from food residue or other materials, can make the recycling process more challenging and costly.

Additionally, not all recycling facilities are equipped to handle polystyrene recycling, which can further limit its recyclability.

How can EPS be recycled?

EPS can be recycled through various methods, such as mechanical recycling, chemical recycling, and pyrolysis. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages, and the choice of recycling technique depends on factors like available resources, infrastructure, and desired end-product quality.


  • Jen Wheeler

    Jen Wheeler, co-founder of Recycling-Revolution.com, holds degrees from UC Berkeley, Yale, and Stanford. A renowned environmentalist, she's championed sustainable practices at global events and leads EcoBright Solutions, focusing on recycling education and eco-friendly products.

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