How Our Recycling Systems Work

Last updated December 12, 2021.

Paper cardboard recycling
Photo by Bas Emmen on Unsplash

“We get out of recycling systems what we put into them.” -Beth Porter1

Recycling is not the answer to all of our waste problems. Simply put, we’ve produced more plastic at this point than we could ever recycle away.

However, recycling can still be a part of the solution to protect ourselves and the planet, because we have to try. Ultimately we are responsible for the items and packaging from items we consume. Recycling, though far from a perfect solution, reduces the number of trees cut down for paper and the number of natural resources we harvest. Additionally, it curbs the production of new plastics and thus the fossil fuels we extract.

Green and white recycling truck on street, using a the lift to dump a residential recycling bin on a street.
Photo by the Brisbane City Council on Flickr, Creative Commons license(CC BY 2.0)

Single-Stream Recycling

“Ultimately, for recycling to become a way of life for consumers and end-users, recycling had to be easy, and it had to save money.”-Ryan Deer, Roadrunner Recycling, Inc.2

Single-stream simply means mixed materials in one group – one stream of materials. If your recycling goes in one bin and is picked up curbside, then you have single-stream recycling in your area.

The idea for single-stream came about in the 1990s because of two beliefs. First, that the convenience of putting everything in one bin would encourage more residents to participate in recycling. Using EPA statistics, one recycling company noted that single-stream recycling “overhauled the underperforming process, taking our national recycling rate from 10.1% in 1985 to 25.7% in 1995 to nearly 32% in 2005.”3

“Curbside recycling grew by 250 percent from 1988 to 1991…People were making the decision to incorporate sorting recyclable goods into their daily routine, reminiscent of war-era conservation efforts.” -Beth Porter4

The second belief is that single-stream recycling systems reduce collection costs. A single truck can collect more volume with mixed materials which reduces transportation costs. However, while collections costs are lower, the processing costs are much higher because of the sorting and separation, tasks which are performed by a combination of humans and expensive sorting machinery.

About 80% of U.S. communities use a single-stream recycling system. “Unfortunately, few could have predicted how low the ceilings really were, or how one move in global policy could send it all crashing down,” referring to China’s 2018 ban on many types of recycling imports.5 Single-stream is clearly riddled with problems and we must find a better way to handle recycling.

“More than 20 million tons of curbside recyclable materials are disposed [of] annually. Curbside recycling in the U.S. currently recovers only 32% of available recyclables in single-family homes, leaving enormous and immediate  opportunity for growth to support the economy, address climate change, and keep recyclable commodities out of landfills.”6

A bird's eye view of the interior of a Material Recovery Facility (MRF).
A bird’s eye view of the interior of a Material Recovery Facility (MRF). Photo by Urban Greendom on Flickr, Creative Commons license, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Material Recovery Facility (MRF)

Recycling collected through single-stream is taken to a Material Recovery Facility, or MRF (pronounced”murf”), and sorted by type of material for them to sell. That is the entire purpose of a MRF: the recycling trucks deposit the collected materials, and the MRF sorts, separates, removes waste from, and bales the recycling together. MRFs are businesses seeking profit; they are not municipally owned and operated.

The physical processing at MRFs varies. But a series of expensive, interconnected machines largely sorts the materials. We produce so much waste that there is no other way to separate it. In 2018, the U.S. produced 292.4 million tons of waste, and we recycled approximately 69 million tons.7 That’s not enough.

Generally, at the MRF, trucks dump the mixed materials onto a large floor, called the tipping floor. A front-end loader drops it into a large bin, called a drum feeder, at the start of the processing line. The materials move through a series of conveyor belts with fans, magnets, and wheels to separate the types of items. Humans remove debris and non-recyclable items at various points to prevent tangling or damage to the machinery. Small items, such as caps and utensils, are not likely to make it through these systems because of their size. In addition, they are difficult to bale because they do not have much surface area. For a video of how MRFs work, see Additional Resources below.

At the end of this process, the MRF bales the recyclables to sell to recyclers and manufacturers. The markets change constantly so one of the biggest challenges is recouping money from the materials. Remember, the MRF is looking to profit just like any other business. Recycling does not happen unless it is profitable.

“Acceptance by a MRF is Not Proof of Recycling.”8

Worker looking at bales of recycling at a recycling center.
Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

Increased Contamination

Contamination is simply the mixing of recyclables with dirty items and non-recyclables. The average resident may not want to spend time cleaning their recyclables, or they may not know it is necessary. They may not understand what is and is not accepted in their local recycling. They may also be “wish-cycling,” which is when someone attempts to recycle something they think should be recycled, like a plastic bag, but which is not recyclable. That plastic bag can get tangled in the machinery at the MRF, and it contaminates the end product of recyclables the MRF needs to sell. If the recyclables have too many contaminates, or non-recyclable items, those bales are likely to be landfilled or incinerated rather than sold to a company that will reuse them.

“When consumers put non-recyclable items into their recycling bins, those materials take a long and circuitous (and expensive) route to the landfill.” -Jennie Romer9

Contamination rates more than doubled between 2007 and 2013.10 “Because of how the system works, the ‘magic bin’ is actually a disgusting, contaminated soup pot. Shaken, stirred, and dumped into a compactor truck with your neighbors’ random mix, contamination keeps 25% of what we put in our recycling bin from ever being processed at a MRF,” wrote Ryan Deer.11 Reducing contamination is key, but it is difficult within a single-stream recycling system.

“For nearly 30 years, Americans have been honeymooning with a recycling system that seems too good to be true.” -Ryan Deer, Roadrunner Recycling, Inc.12

Paper recycling bale, contaminated with a blue plastic Finesse shampoo bottle.
Paper recycling bale, contaminated with a plastic shampoo bottle. Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

Dual-Stream Recycling

In a dual-stream system, each material type is kept in a separate bag or bin, and trucks have three or more compartments. The materials are already sorted upon arrival at the MRF. This was the common recycling collection system until single-stream became the dominant system by the mid-1990s. It costs more and requires trucks with separate sections. But the higher costs “of having residents sort could very well be offset by the higher-quality materials they’re recovering and able to sell.” Single-stream loses about 25% of collected materials from contaminants versus less than 12% in dual-stream.1314

Essentially, most recycling centers serve as a dual-stream system because residents separate the recycling into different dumpsters, which the recycling company collects directly. This results in lower contamination and higher recovery rates, meaning less of that recycling is landfilled.

“There is significant evidence that the resulting scrap material quality (and hence the revenue) is lower under single-stream collection than it is under a dual stream system or under systems like container deposits, where materials are kept separate.” -The Container Recycling Institute15

Collected PET plastic bottles crushed.
Photo by tanvi sharma on Unsplash

System-Wide Problems

Although consumers need to do their part, the problems with recycling in the U.S. do not fall solely on the public. In fact, the systems in place are themselves faulty. Packaging and single-use disposable production are out of control, and the market demand is low. The market needs improvement, as the cost for new materials is sometimes lower than recycled materials. Additionally, only between 50-74% of Americans have access to curbside recycling. There are multiple problems. But that doesn’t mean it can’t change. As The Recycling Partnership noted:

“The ultimate fate of recyclable materials rests in the hands of a broad set of stakeholders who must all do something new and different to support a transition to a circular economy. Strong, coordinated action is needed in areas ranging from package design, capital investments, scaled adoption of best management practices, policy interventions, and consumer engagement.16

How We Can Improve Recycling

While recycling systems must be improved and we must find or create demand for recycled materials, we can help improve our own practices. Remember, that just because a product is made with recycled materials, does not necessarily mean it is recyclable. “A 2016 survey showed that 59 percent of the public thinks that ‘most types of items’ are recyclable in their town, perhaps without knowing the local rules,” wrote Beth Porter.17 You can find a list of what is acceptable in your area by going to your municipal website.

I’ve put together a Quick Guide on How To Recycle Better to help you prevent contamination.

The bottom line is, if we purchase something, we need to take responsibility for disposing of it. If we stop buying so many products in single-use disposable containers, especially plastics, the companies and manufacturers will stop producing them as demand goes down. At the same time, companies must take real initiative and stop producing waste that is not recyclable.

Graphic of a tree with the leaves in the shape of a recycling symbol. Blue sky background.
Image by 政徳 吉田 from Pixabay

Going Forward

“If all of the 37.4 million tons of single-family recyclables were put back to productive use instead of lost to disposal, it would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 96 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, conserve an annual energy equivalent of 154 million barrels of oil, and achieve the  equivalent of taking more than 20 million cars off U.S. highways.”18

We have the opportunity to make a real difference by better handling our waste. While recycling is not the answer to our waste problems, it is still very important. We need a coordinated effort to reduce waste, to increase demand and markets for recycling, and to be better stewards of the waste we do create. The Recycling Partnership lists these strategies in order to overhaul and improve our recycling systems:

    • “Substantially greater support of community recycling programs with capital funding, technical assistance, and efforts to strengthen and grow local political commitment to recycling services.
    • Development of new and enhanced state and federal recycling policies.
    • Continued and expanded investment in domestic material processing and end markets.
    • Citizen and consumer engagement to create and sustain robust and appropriate recycling behavior.
    • Continued innovation in the collection, sorting and general recyclability of materials, including the building of flexibility and resiliency to add new materials into the system.
    • Broader stakeholder engagement in achieving all elements of true circularity, in which the fate of all materials is not just intended to be recycled, but that they are designed, collected, and actually turned into something new.”19

In the end, we need to focus on reducing waste, including “recyclables,” in order to turn the tide of excessive waste. We must stop wishing for easy and convenient solutions and instead take responsibility for our waste.

Will we do it? What are your ideas? Feel free to leave me a comment below. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “How Recycling Works,” SciShow, June 11, 2015. I love how succinctly this video breaks down how recycling works at the MRF. You’ll learn a lot in just 8 minutes!

Article, “What is a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)?,” by Shelby Bell,

Video, “Single Stream Recycling – Tour a Material Recovery Facility (MRF),” Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, October 13, 2016.

Video, “Ever Wonder Where Your Recyclables Go? Get an Inside Look at Where the Magic Happens,” about the Sims Municipal Recycling facility in New York City, featured by Mashable Deals on youtube, May 29, 2018.

Article, “These Items Don’t Belong in Your Recycling,” by Ryan Deer,

Article, “The Violent Afterlife of a Recycled Plastic Bottle: What happens after you toss it into the bin?” by Debra Winter, The Atlantic, December 4, 2015.

Article, “Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How Do We Fix It?” by Renee Cho, Columbia Climate School, March 13, 2020.

Footnotes:

Chattanooga Suspends Curbside Recycling

Last updated September 6, 2021.

City of Chattanooga 96 gallon blue bin
City of Chattanooga 96 gallon blue bin. Photo by me

Chattanooga has suspended curbside recycling.

Just like that, with one day’s notice. It was announced in a news release on July 29 and took effect on July 30. I worry that this will not be a temporary suspension and that the “non-essential” city service will end long-term. The City removed glass recycling from curbside pick-up in 2018 and never brought it back.

The mayor seems determined to bring it back. According to their news release, “Residents should keep their recycling containers. Curbside recycling will be reinstated. However, residents may also call 311 to have their containers picked up.”1

Why?

The City of Chattanooga has suspended curbside recycling pick-up because of a shortage of truck drivers. There are simply not enough people to run the trucks to collect the recycling with over 30 open CDL driver positions. The City must focus on garbage pick up because that is an essential service required by law. Officials indicated that even garbage services could see disruptions if they are not able to hire a sufficient number of employees.

While this is certainly pandemic related, the other major factor is a lower than average salary for city employees. The mayor’s Chief of Staff said, “The impact to recycling due to our driver shortage illustrates one of Chattanooga’s most acute problems: pay for city employees is far below the market rate, a problem our budget will address when we present it to City Council in August.”2

“This was a difficult decision. An increasing shortage of drivers, low employee retention and hiring challenges are just a few of the issues that made continued curbside recycling untenable.” -City of Chattanooga press release4

Dark green recycling containers at the Access Road center. Each are labeled with signs for plastic, aluminum, steel cans, and glass.
Recycling containers at the Access Road recycling center. Photo by me

How to Recycle Now

Going forward, we will have to take our recycling to the closest recycling center. The City’s news release told residents to go to one of the five city-run recycling centers. However, there are a total of 10 recycling centers in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, and you can use any of them. I’ve created a map showing the 5 city centers in green, and the 5 county centers in orange:

Generally, all the centers take #1 and #2 plastics, aluminum and steel cans, newspaper, mixed paper, cardboard, glass, and some offer computer equipment and oil collection. I’ve listed links to both the City and County’s websites under Additional Resources.

Note that none of the recycling centers collect #3-#7 plastics. The only reason they were allowed in the curbside bins is that the Chattanooga Code of Ordinances states that they will collect it.5So even though they include that they will pick up all plastics #1-#7, only #1 and #2 are actually sent for recycling. There is little or no market for #3-#7 and those are landfilled.

My son tossing a glass jar into the recycling container at a Chattanooga recycling center.
My son tossing a glass jar into the recycling container at a Chattanooga recycling center. Photo by me

Impact

For residents who are either unable or unwilling to cart their recyclables to the centers, this will be the end of recycling for them. That recycling will now go to the landfill. These are typically 96-gallon bins. Our household routinely filled the blue recycling bin long before the garbage bin, and we only put our garbage out every few weeks. But I regularly see other households’ garbage bins overflowing week after week, and I can only expect to see an increase with no recycling curbside service.

Update: The City apparently did not account for the increase in recycling that would be dropped off at the recycling centers. With the exception of glass, the bins have been full and so overflowing it was hard to fit my stuff into them. This has been frustrating and extremely disappointing.

The standard issue City of Chattanooga blue recycling bin and green garbage bin side by side, showing their equal size.
The standard-issue City of Chattanooga blue recycling bin and green garbage bin side by side, showing their almost equal size. Photo by me

Time For Change?

I argue that now is the time for a change. Single-stream recycling systems are wrought with problems regarding sorting, separation, and contamination (meaning residents mix in unrecyclable items). So do we want our imperfect single-stream recycling system back? Does it increase recycling participation even though it lowers the quality of the recovered materials? Or do we need to look at other options such as lowering our use of single-use disposable plastics? Perhaps we could shift our focus to reducing waste in general?

Perhaps now is not a time to demand bringing the old system back, but a time to overhaul the City of Chattanooga’s waste management systems in general. We could pass city-wide bans on single-use plastics such as straws, plastic bags, and take-out containers. We could implement city-wide composting to reduce methane emissions. This would also allow the city to have great soil for landscape projects, urban gardens, and free or low-cost soil for residents. The opportunities are out there, but are we ready here?

Let me know your thoughts by leaving me a comment below. Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!

Update: The City of Chattanooga announced that they would do a one-time emergency curbside pick-up of the blue recycling bins. The announcement’s wording was that the city wanted to “empty” the bins before the plan to hopefully resume full service in October. Residents were informed to put recycling bins out on the same day as regular garbage pick-up. Many were excited that they could again recycle, even if it was just this once. Others were skeptical, myself included. I asked if they would be picking up both bins with one truck, as that would mean all of the materials would be landfilled.

Evidently, many called and emailed the city to ask the same question, which prompted the city to respond and be transparent. The materials from the one-time emergency recycling pick-up will go to the landfill. The city wants to empty the recycling bins, since it was ended so abruptly, to have a fresh start. “Many residents’ bins have..been sitting outside in the weather for several weeks now—rendering the material inside too poor a quality for a second life in the recycling aftermarket,” wrote a city spokesperson.6 The City should have been upfront about this. I know that at least half of the city residents have not followed this story and will put their stuff out, unknowingly sending it to the landfill.

Chattanooga, we can do better than this.

 

Additional Resources:

Page, “Recycling,” City of Chattanooga government website, accessed July 31, 2021.

Page, “Where/When to Recycle, Hamilton County,” Tennessee government website, accessed July 31, 2021.

Footnotes:

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 5

Chick-fil-a meal
Chick-Fil-A food and polystyrene cup. Photo by young shanahan on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

In my series on polystyrene food containers, I’ve explained how it is used, produced, and why it is harmful to human health as well as the environment. I’ve examined why it is not practical to recycle polystyrene even though its producers would have you believe otherwise. In Part 4, we explored supposed alternatives and why they weren’t totally effective. Today, I want to discuss corporate responsibility and how bans on polystyrene can help bring greater change.

“When you know better, you do better.” -Maya Angelou

The Role of the Food Industry

Chicken Salad Chick polystyrene container, use for dine-in service.
Chicken Salad Chick polystyrene container, used for dine-in and take-out services. Photo by me

The fast-food and restaurant industries can play a huge role in ending the use of polystyrene. Many use polystyrene for their hot and cold drink cups and clamshell containers, but they have a choice in what they purchase. Most dine-in restaurants already use reusable dining ware and the ones that don’t could make the choice to switch and install a dishwasher. The initial investment would be higher, but the constant overhead of disposables would disappear and trash costs would go down. For take-out and leftover containers, there are many ways companies can offset the increased costs of non-polystyrene packaging. They could allow customers to bring their own containers and/or they could raise the cost of their products by mere cents. Companies have the opportunity to be part of the solution in order to protect our own habitat.

A few companies have self-imposed bans on polystyrene. McDonald’s phased out polystyrene containers for its sandwiches in 1990 after their containers became a symbol for litter. These containers are so well-known in advertising and consumer culture history that the Smithsonian has those containers in their archives.1 It stopped using polystyrene for hot beverages in 2012 after being pressured by environmental groups, and they were supposed to end the use of cold beverage cups by 2019. Dunkin’ (formerly known as Dunkin’ Donuts) eliminated polystyrene coffee cups in May 2020. They estimate that this will remove one billion cups from the waste stream annually.

Sonic polystyrene cup found on ground
Littered Sonic polystyrene cup, photo by jnyemb on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

The Role of Manufacturers

The manufacturers of polystyrene have an obvious interest in keeping it in use. But they argue against the environmental and human health problems stemming from it. They also promote recycling as a solution when it is not because of the volume. Corporations have the opportunity to do so much more than they do!

Case Study: Dart Container Corporation

Dart Container Corporation manufactures over 4,000 products including cups, plates, containers, lids, and straws for everyday use in restaurants, hospitals, schools, and homes. Their environmental commitment lists recycling polystyrene as one of their strategies, using what they collect at their plants and other drop-off facilities across the U.S. “We are the award-winning industry leader in creating and promoting recycling opportunities for EPS foam #6.”2 They sell it to manufacturers of picture frames, interior molding, pens, rulers, and foam packaging.

But they charge customers to collect polystyrene cups for recycling. They have a program called The Cups Are REcyclable (CARE), that offers Dart customers “an easy and affordable way to recycle foam food containers” for “Dart’s large-volume users, such as hospitals, universities and corporate cafeterias.” This provides educational materials, a collection bin, and a densifier (like a compactor) for a cost of $295 per month. The customer is responsible for the installation and maintenance of the machine, but Dart collects it once per month.3

Dart also has its Recycla-Pak program, a foam cup take-back program offered for sale by Dart distributors. Usually, companies cover the costs of take-back programs, not the customer. These are actually brilliant business models for Dart. They sell the single-use disposable cups, reclaim it at the same customer’s cost, and then resell the recycled products to new customers. Profit all around! But this isn’t the right thing to do and it inhibits recycling because of the cost.

Waffle House polystyrene cup, found next to the Tennessee River.
Waffle House polystyrene cup, found next to the Tennessee River. Photo by me

Bans on polystyrene

Many communities across the U.S. have instituted polystyrene bans, but it is a surprisingly controversial issue. There are those who recognize that we need to move away from polystyrene because of human health hazards and to curb pollution. Others think that replacement choices aren’t much better for the environment and that businesses will suffer from the higher cost of the replacements. I’ll explain a few of these bans.

Styrofoam cup and dead pelican
“Styrofoam cup and dead pelican,” photo by hikinghillman on Flickr, at La Ballona Creek in Venice Beach, California. Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

California

California has approximately 121 local municipal ordinances throughout the state banning polystyrene.4 Although there is not yet a state-wide ban in California, this shows how many citizens want to stop the use of polystyrene. Food containers are not recycled in California, “although the plastic industry has attempted to implement recycling programs that are simply way too expensive to be implemented in any meaningful way.”5 Besides impaired waterways littered with plastic and polystyrene trash, a 2004 report indicated that it was costing about $30 million per year to dispose of polystyrene materials.

In addition, in order to clear up confusion about customers using their own containers, the State of California passed Assembly Bill 619 in 2019. This new law now clearly allows the use of reusable food and beverage containers at restaurants and events in the state.6 I would love to see other states follow their lead so that this was allowed everywhere.

Maryland

Maryland was one of the first states to pass a polystyrene ban. “Environmentalists say the new law will have long-term benefits, removing a material made with fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change, and that clogs landfills, pollutes the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways and ultimately harms wildlife, people and the planet,” according to an article in the Baltimore Sun. But those against it say “alternatives to foam don’t always live up to their promises — plastic containers don’t get washed out and recycled or reused, and compostable ones aren’t always compostable without special equipment. Instead, they say, they end up in the same waste stream as the foam they replaced.”7

Maryland has not fully implemented the ban yet, as COVID-19 delayed the deadline for schools and restaurants to stop using polystyrene. Trash collection rose 22% in Baltimore during the pandemic, largely due to take-out packaging. It began October 1, 2020 and it will be exciting to see the long-term results.

“If researchers find the law helps improve Maryland’s waterways, that could help guide future policy around the world and “turn off the faucet” of supplying polystyrene into the water.”8

Other States

The call to reduce the use of polystyrene has been heard in other places as well. Maine passed a ban on polystyrene food and drink containers in supermarkets and restaurants which will go into effect in 2021. New Jersey has pursued a ban on single-use paper and plastic bags at supermarkets that will also limit the use of polystyrene takeout boxes and plastic straws. As of this writing, it is awaiting the Governor’s signature. These examples show that enough people in those states were concerned about the negative environmental impacts of polystyrene. They recognize that the best solution is to stop using it!

Polar Pop cup on the ground
Circle K Polar Pop cup made of polystyrene, found during a litter cleanup in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee. Photo by me

Solution

While there are many alternatives, the best solution will always be to stop using single-use disposable products. It is my hope that polystyrene bans become the norm. Kate Breimann, state director of Environment Maryland, urges us to consider the larger issue of moving away “from the culture single-use” disposable items. She said implementing previous measures to protect the environment once loomed difficult as well, but have since paid off. “We think about when we had leaded gas and leaded paint, and people said, ‘It’s going to be hard for the industry,'” she said. “But now we have a healthier world.”9 This is absolutely true, and we all benefit from a healthier environment.

If you have ideas on how to end the use of polystyrene or single-use disposable take-out containers, please let me know in the comments below! As always, thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Why Styrofoam (Expanded Polystyrene) Should Be Banned Everywhere In The World,” Jeff Lewis, medium.com, May 6, 2019.

Report, “Plastic Debris in the California Marine Ecosystem: A Summary of Current Research, Solution Efforts and Data Gaps,” California Ocean
Protection Council and California Ocean Science Trust, September 2011.

Series, “Quick Guide to my Packaging Industry Series,” becauseturtleseatplasticbags.com.

Footnotes:

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 3

Polystyrene food container from Popeye's, sitting on the bank of the Tennessee River.
Polystyrene food container from Popeyes, sitting on the bank of the Tennessee River. Photo by me

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I told you about polystyrene (Styrofoam) food containers, how and what it they are made with, and how polystyrene is harmful and toxic to human health. Today I’ll explain its poor recyclability and its environmental impact.

“The irrefutable evidence and research has been mounting over decades from various federal agencies, city staff reports, state staff reports, environmental clubs, and nonprofits,” pertaining to the negative effects of Expanded Polystyrene (EPS). -Jeff Lewis, environmentalist writer1

Polystyrene container showing the #6 recycling symbol.
Polystyrene container showing the #6 recycling symbol. Photo by me

Recyclability

In practice, polystyrene food packaging is not recycled. Despite misconceptions, most municipalities do not accept it for recycling, even with the #6 recycling symbol. If it is collected, it often goes to the landfill instead of a recycling facility. Polystyrene is often contaminated with food residue which makes recycling impractical. Additionally, most establishments that use polystyrene food packaging do not provide separate recycling bins, so customers have no choice but to throw them in the regular trash. Nothing is recycled when it is thrown in the trash.

Overflowing trash receptacle at Dunkin Donuts
Photo by Chris Caravello on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Even when you do find a place that accepts polystyrene, there’s no guarantee that the meat trays and egg cartons that you wash, save, and cart back to the supermarket actually get recycled, if you’ll recall from Part 6 of my Packaging Series. Often, those collection sites are simply to draw you into the store and keep local recycling streams free from those materials.

“Styrofoam, despite the #6 plastic composition and the misleading recycling symbol it often carries, cannot be recycled easily or cost-effectively – less than 1% of Styrofoam is recycled in the USA.” -Green Dining Alliance of St. Louis

Cheaper to Produce New Polystyrene

Unfortunately, it is also easier and cheaper to produce new polystyrene than it is to collect, sort, and clean it for the recycling process. Thus, the market for recycled polystyrene is small and unlikely to grow. Companies such as BASF and Dart Container Corporation would have you believe otherwise. Both advocate for polystyrene recycling because they are producers of it as well. Many of the companies that do recycle polystyrene don’t accept food containers, they only accept polystyrene shipping materials. There are a few companies that do recycle used polystyrene food containers and have ways to clean them. But because food contamination makes food containers very costly to sort, clean, and recycle, those companies are rare.

New York City’s Department of Sanitation studied recycling polystyrene food containers and determined that recycling them is not economically feasible. “The report found that the majority of Styrofoam collected for recycling ended up in landfill anyway—but at a higher economic cost and carbon footprint compared to being directly landfilled.” This includes the cost of collection, recycling separation and contamination, and ultimately hauling it a second time to the landfill.2 The conclusion, as always, is to stop relying on recycling and focus on ending the use of single-use disposable items.

“The reason for the decline in price is that crude oil prices are so low that it is cheaper for companies to produce new Styrofoam products than to clean and reuse postconsumer products. This economic reality discourages other companies from getting into the market of recycling the polystyrene.” -Real Cost of Styrofoam3

The Volume of Polystyrene is Overwhelming

The sheer volume of discarded polystyrene is a problem as well. The world produces about 14 million tons of polystyrene annually. As with any type of plastic, we cannot recycle away the problem of single-use disposable items. We must stop it at the source; refusing to use them whenever possible.

Polystyrene cup left in the woods.
Image by Nik Stanbridge on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“25 billion Styrofoam coffee cups are used for just a few minutes and thrown away every year.” -Green Dining Alliance of St. Louis

Environmental Impacts

Since polystyrene is not recyclable, most of it goes to landfills and some inevitably makes its way into the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Styrofoam production is the fifth largest creator of toxic waste in the United States. Polystyrene products break down into smaller and smaller pieces and eventually become microplastics. Birds and marine life ingest small pieces because they mistake the pieces for food. Additionally, after the ingested polystyrene kills an animal, it can go on to kill again after that animal decomposes and the pieces reenter the environment.

“80% of Styrofoam ends up in landfills, and much of the remaining 20% in waterways.” -Green Dining Alliance of St. Louis

Polystyrene does not biodegrade, even the alleged biodegradable and compostable polystyrene, as I wrote about in Part 2 of my Packaging Series. Again, most take-out packaging is thrown away. Polystyrene foam litter is common as it is lightweight and breaks apart easily, making smaller pieces that become windswept. The Clean Water Action organization noted important facts about polystyrene’s environmental harm:4

      • Expanded polystyrene (EPS) products and their associated chemicals (such as styrenes) are widespread in the marine environment.
      • Polystyrene is in the digestive tracts of marine invertebrate and vertebrate wildlife.
      • Polystyrene is one of the most common types of debris on shorelines and beaches worldwide.
A large piece of a polystyrene container, found near the bank of the Tennessee River.
A large piece of a polystyrene container found near the bank of the Tennessee River. Photo by me

“Why is such a toxic material in use? Polystyrene is cheaper than some alternatives. However, the environmental expense of polystyrene far exceeds the cost restaurants and grocery stores are currently paying to provide them.” -Massachuesetts Sierra Club5

Solution

After considering the costs to human health, wildlife, and the environment, the solution is to end the use of polystyrene food packaging. Many reports have a similar conclusion and call for banning polystyrene or finding alternatives (see Additional Resources below). We must call for businesses to stop using these products and for local governments to ban their use. Moreover, we need to greatly reduce the amounts of all single-use disposable products we use. In my next article, I’ll explore alternatives to polystyrene food containers, the role of companies in their use of it, and municipal bans on polystyrene. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional resources:

Video, “Plastic Recycling, Inc. recycles foam #6 from a MRF,” Plastic Recycling, Inc., March 25, 2016. This video shows the process for one of the rare companies that actually recycles polystyrene food packaging.

Article, “Now and forever: The Styrofoam dilemma,” by Catherine Solyom, Canwest News Service, Accessed October 20, 2020.

Report from cleanwateraction.org, “Greenhouse Gas Impacts
of Disposable vs Reusable Foodservice Products,” January 2017.

 

Footnotes: