Book Review: Can I Recycle This? A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single-Use Plastics

Can I Recycle This? book cover

I recently read this book and thought it was worth reviewing. Serving as a guidebook to recycling better, this publication is so much more than that! It was visually appealing, as it is illustrated with colorful diagrams and visuals to enhance your understanding of the subject matter.

The author, Jennie Romer, is an attorney and sustainability expert. She has more than a decade of experience fighting for effective legislation on single-use plastics and waste reduction.1 Romer currently serves as a legal associate for the Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Pollution Initiative “where she leads Surfrider’s policy efforts and litigation to reduce plastic pollution at local, state and national levels.”2 She created the Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Bag Law Activist Toolkit3 and founded the website PlasticBagLaws.org.4 The New Yorker called her “the country’s leading expert in plastic-bag law.”5

“The truth is – and you knew this was coming – that recycling alone won’t save us or the planet.” -Jennie Romer

Illustration of plastic water bottles.
Image by LillyCantabile from Pixabay

Purpose of the Book

Romer wrote that people ask her all the time, “Can I Recycle This?” and that was part of the impetus for the book. But the answers are never simple. Laws in different municipalities and recycling material profitability vary greatly. Recycling collection does not translate directly to actual recycling. With her background in law and sustainability, she was able to put together this guide that offers recycling advice, waste management systems and processes, and briefs histories of how these systems came to be.

In her introduction, she echoed my thoughts from my Packaging Series on packaging and manufacturer responsibility. “Recycling is only effective if the materials can be sold for a profit, and the markets for what is profitable fluctuates. Sadly, a lot of our carefully separated and washed plastics end up getting shipped to developing countries and contributing to climate change. And that’s where policy and activism come in: The ultimate goal is to adopt sensible and effective policies to reduce single-use plastic and other packaging, and hold producers responsible for making better packaging and paying for the cost of recycling and waste disposal (and cleanup).6 Romer also viewed this book as a contribution to that movement.

Concise Overview of Waste Management

The first section of the book covered a concise overview of the recycling system and other waste management methods. Romer explained these complex systems well but with brevity. Topics included defining recycling and what recyclable means, the types of plastic resins (numbers on plastics), global plastic production, and how resources are extracted and produced. The book provided an overview of how single-stream recycling and other types of recycling systems work, sorting at Material Recovery Facilities, and the end markets for recycled materials. Additionally, she addressed “biodegradable” and “compostable” plastics, incineration, and how modern landfills operate. There is so much to learn, and I found this section fascinating!

Guide to Recycling

In this core section, the author covered the recyclability of specific items, from straws to eyeglasses to disposable coffee cups. This section used a color-coding system both in the table of contents and on the edges of the pages to make it easy for the reader to quickly assess recyclability.

The Toll of Our Waste

Romer also covered the toll that our waste takes on air and water pollution, wildlife, and human health. She wrote about environmental justice regarding communities adjacent or near incineration facilities, landfills, or chemical plants. The book detailed China’s National Sword Policy and how that has changed our recycling markets globally. She also included the human health and pollution ramifications of shipping our waste internationally.

People sorting recycling in standing filthy water in Bangladesh.
Image by Mumtahina Rahman from Pixabay

Personal & Policy Solutions

There are many solutions to avoid buying single-use disposable plastics, and Romer offered many ideas. She detailed greenwashing in advertising and offered advice on how to avoid those products. Most importantly, she explained how to have a voice within policy and regulations, particularly in regards to single-use disposable plastics. She defined Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and explored The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA).7 “The bill is a road map for how to address the plastic pollution problem in the U.S. and was developed by legislators in consultation with environmental groups and other experts,” she wrote. “The legislation looks at virtually the entire life cycle of plastics, from its creation to manufacturing and disposal.”

Inspiring

It can be hard to convey the importance of recycling and environmental responsibility. I found this book inspired me to keep the momentum going on fighting single-use disposal products, preventing climate change, and protecting human and animal life. This is our planet, and we need to protect ourselves from the catastrophes we are creating. We can all be the change. Romer hopes so too: “I hope that this book inspires you to become involved with plastics reduction and recycling.” I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone wishing to learn more about recycling and the related issues.

Ask for a copy of this book at your local library! Thank you for reading. Please share and subscribe.

Chalkboard drawing with the word "Together" and people figures in different colors.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Footnotes:

How Our Recycling Systems Work

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.

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 Romer8

Contamination rates more than doubled between 2007 and 2013.9 “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.10 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.11

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.1213

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 Institute14

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.15

How To Recycle Better

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.16 You can find a list of what is acceptable in your area by going to your municipal website.

Here’s how you can help improve single-stream and dual-stream recycling to keep from contaminating the recycling:

      • Don’t put in plastic bags or films. (Note: Supermarkets often collect bags.)
      • Do not bag your recyclables.
      • Empty and rinse the containers. Food contamination, especially as it rots, reduces the value of the recyclables.
      • Don’t crush plastic recyclables. This is so that the MRF can read the resin codes (plastic #) on the bottom of the containers.
      • Separate the caps and only recycle them if they have a proper resin code that is accepted in your area. Most of the time, you will be throwing these away.
      • Do not recycle candy wrappers, paper cups, receipts, plastic straws and utensils, polystyrene or Styrofoam, shredded paper, complex cartons (milk cartons, broth, soup, etc.), large plastic items (chairs, laundry baskets, etc), electronics, or batteries.
      • Certain types of glass cannot be recycled: window, mirror, crystal, or Pyrex.
      • Do not put in take-out containers, especially foam ones, unless they are plastic #1 or #2 and are clean.
      • Pizza boxes depend on your area, but most of the time the grease on the cardboard contaminates recycling. You can tear off the bottom and recycle the top if it is free of grease and food.
      • Remove shrinkwraps from #1 and #2 bottles.
      • Frozen food boxes are usually not recyclable because they contain a layer of plastic coating (to protect the package from moisture).
      • Flatten cardboard boxes.
      • Other items that you should put in the garbage, and not the recycling, include applesauce/juice packets, milk or broth cartons (or any multi-layer packaging), and paper napkins/towels.

Some of the items listed above are accepted through separate recycling streams. Elizabeth Royte wrote, “A common motto is ‘When in doubt, throw it out,’ but I prefer the alternative ‘When in doubt, go find out’ to build better habits rather than giving up on confusing items.”17 Do your best and teach others how to recycle better as well.

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:

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 4

Meat wrapped in plastic film on polystyrene trays.
Meat wrapped in plastic film on polystyrene trays. Note that some supermarkets, such as Whole Foods (and Earthfare before it closed) have moved away from most, if not all, polystyrene food packaging. But polystyrene still abounds in other supermarkets including Walmart, ALDI, Publix, Food City, and many others. Image by Karamo from Pixabay

In my last three articles, I’ve explored the various aspects of polystyrene and its harmful effects on human health, wildlife, and the environment. Hopefully, by now, you’re no longer reheating your leftovers in those containers. Maybe you’ve even requested that your favorite restaurant stop using them!

It is not practical to recycle polystyrene, although producers of it would have you believe otherwise. Today, I want to look at alternatives to polystyrene food containers and explore other ideas for dealing with this toxic material and waste problem it creates. Unfortunately, the alternatives all fall short.

Photo of a girl eating ice cream out of a polystyrene cup
Photo by Dan Gaken on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Alternatives to polystyrene

There are many alternatives for take-out food packaging including several ideas that have not been put into practice yet. Many alternatives are no better than polystyrene. In fact, many food packaging companies make false or misleading claims often omitting names of chemicals in their products. Let’s look at some of those now.

Plastic film linings

Plastic film-lined paperboard, such as the standard paper coffee cups, cannot be recycled because of the mixed materials. They also cannot be composted because of the plastic film. Some companies use PLA, which can be – but is not always – a biodegradable plastic film. Cups and containers lined with PLA would have to first be collected and taken to an industrial compost facility, which as you’ll recall from Part 2 of my Packaging Series, these facilities are few and far between. There are a few companies that now advertise these as backyard compostable, which is great if it is true and it is free of toxins. But this would require collecting the PLA-lined containers or cups instead of trashing them.

Plastics #1 and #2

Using #1 and #2 plastics are better in that they are much more recyclable than #6 (polystyrene), but this assumes the items make it into the recycling. I know that many fast-food restaurants use recyclable plastics, but do not provide recycling receptacles at their locations. This forces any customer wishing to recycle to take those items home. Also, the volume of throw-away items negates its positive possibilities. We must move away from plastics and our reliance on single-use disposable items.

“Compostable” and “biodegradable” polystyrene

In Part 2 of my Packaging Series, I wrote about “compostable” and “biodegradable” polystyrene and plastics that are really neither, as they do not break down in regular compost, nor in the marine environment. These types of polystyrene require an industrial composting facility which, as mentioned above, is not available in many places. A food service using these types of containers would have to separately collect them and ship them to a facility far away. But realistically, many of these end up in the landfill. And nothing biodegrades in a landfill. Backyard compostable plastic has started appearing on the market, but I don’t know if these are truly biodegradable and toxin-free.

Molded fiber containers

Molded fiber take-out packaging seemed like a great alternative to plastic until it was discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). This chemical causes cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children. They are the same compounds in some nonstick cookware. Worse, manufacturers advertise many of these containers as compostable. But if PFOAs get into your soil, they will also grow into your plants, as these chemicals do not dissolve or disappear. Stay away from anything containing PFOAs (also PFAs). I’ve linked an article under Additional Resources for more information on this.

Large Scale Changes

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had access to composting through municipal systems and all take-out packaging was made from real compostable products that also did not contain toxic chemicals? This would take a large-scale change to our waste management systems, but it would really change the world and make a global difference in our climate, environment, and health. Just think about how much waste we could keep out of landfills by composting food waste and food containers!

Sustainable fast food packaging idea
Sustainable fast food packaging idea by Ian Gilley of IG Design Solutions, made from biodegradable compressed paper. We need more innovations like this!

ReThink Disposable

ReThink Disposable, a program of Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund, tries to prevent waste before it starts. They advocate for reusable food container solutions (I’ve listed their guide under Additional Resources). They work with local jurisdictions, businesses, and consumers of take-out food packaging “to inspire a cultural shift away from the single-use “throwaway” lifestyle.” ReThink Disposable indicates that “the best way to champion our movement is by supporting ReThink Disposable businesses who eliminate and reduce disposable packaging.”1 While this program is only in California right now, we can do this and we all have the power to follow the same guidelines and practices. The organization offers multiple case studies on California businesses, including an entire school district, that switched from disposables to reusables.

Disposable cup infographic poster from ReThink Disposable

Solution

While there are many alternatives to polystyrene, none of them will have as significant an impact as simply not using single-use disposable products. Giving up these products doesn’t mean we have to be inconvenienced, it just means we have to prepare a bit more. Stopping the flow of single-use disposables just takes a little forward-thinking and intentionality, because the best solution will always be to stop using single-use disposable products. Check out my page on “11 Ways to Go Plastic-Free with Food” for ideas! Once you stop using disposables, you’ll be surprised at how little you miss them.

As a society, we’re going to have to think outside of the box on this one. What about take-out places that allow people to bring their own glass or metal containers and drink cups? What about having a standardized exchange system? Restaurants could invest in reusable containers that customers could return for a small deposit, similar to a container deposit system. Once returned they either receive money back, credit, or their next container at no cost.

In my next and final article in this short series, I’ll explore the role of companies and municipal bans on polystyrene. 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, “Compostable plastics: are they PLAying you?” Aubrey Hills, Student Environmental Resource Center, University of California, Berkeley, March 10, 2017.

Article, “The bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen are supposed to be compostable. They contain cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,'” by Joe Fassler, thecounter.org, August 5, 2019.

Guide, “Reusable Food Serviceware Guide,” ReThink Disposable and Clean Water Fund, 2015.

Footnote:

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: