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What are the Different Types of Polystyrene Recycling?

B. Turner
B. Turner

Polystyrene is a petroleum byproduct that is used to make products ranging from food storage containers to household goods. Polystyrene blocks and packing peanuts also serve as some of the most popular materials for shipping and packaging. Though manufacturers continue to use these products in large quantities, many people are concerned about how polystyrene disposal may impact the environment. Concerns over pollution and disposal have led some companies to develop polystyrene recycling techniques, including crushing, dissolving, or reusing this material to make new products.

One of the most basic methods of polystyrene recycling involves melting this material down in a specialty oven. These recycling ovens are designed to meet the demands of polystyrene recycling, and can shrink this material to just a fraction of its size by removing excess air. The resulting by-product largely consists of petroleum, and can be sold to refineries for use in diesel fuel. Others use chemicals or organic compounds, including a citrus oil known as limonene, to dissolve the polystyrene without the use of these ovens.

Uniform polystyrene pellets can be used as bean bag stuffing.
Uniform polystyrene pellets can be used as bean bag stuffing.

Polystyrene foam products, including insulation and packing materials, can be recycled to form new building materials. Manufacturers shred on grind the polystyrene into small pieces, then add it to concrete mixtures to enhance the insulating properties of the concrete. Polystyrene recycling may also include turning this foam into loose fill insulation for homes and buildings. Some manufacturers even press the loose foam pieces into sheets of foam building insulation. Recycled polystyrene foam also serves as an important component in structural insulated panels (SIPs).

Polystyrene -- often associated with insulation -- can be melted down and recycled.
Polystyrene -- often associated with insulation -- can be melted down and recycled.

Another form of polystyrene recycling involves melting these products and pouring them into molds to form new products. For example, some manufacturers produce benches, picture frames, and household goods using petroleum-derived thermoplastic materials. By melting existing polystyrene products instead, manufacturers can avoid seeking out raw materials. This type of recycling process is also used to produce molds for casting metal or other forms of plastic.

Consumers have many several options when it comes to choosing a polystyrene recycling method. Some retailers collect used polystyrene products for in-house recycling, or for use in making new products. Many communities also provide curbside pickup of these material, or accept these products for dropoff at local recycling centers. Mailing and shipping companies may take packing materials and reuse them to package future products. Some polystyrene industry associations also accept these products by mail, and then arrange for recycling or reuse.

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Discussion Comments


Waste is misplaced resource. Polystyrene is worth recycling. In our daily life, we can make good use of styrofoam and reproduce them as renewable PS frames.


@KoiwiGal - Something I've been wondering lately is if it is actually the best thing to try and recycle polystyrene using current methods.

I mean, people automatically think that recycling equals a good thing, but it's not always so clear cut.

And if the recycling process involves a lot of energy and pollution you have to ask whether it is worth it in the first place? Even if it is recycled with solvents, the solvents need to be made and disposed of afterwards.

Personally, I would prefer it if there wasn't so much polystyrene to recycle in the first place, but that kind of ideal world doesn't exist.

We have to make do with what we've got and I don't think money should be the only consideration (although it is an important one).


@croydon - Polystyrene plastic recycling has been available for a long time, but not in many places. Unfortunately, it's quite labor intensive and not enough of a money saver for people to bother.

Now that fuel prices are getting so high it's become more cost efficient to recycle polystyrene so more companies are setting up to do it.

I found it surprising that recycling was such a business and so dependent on prices but I guess that really makes sense. You need to be able to fuel the furnaces there just like anywhere else.

Unfortunately a lot of places still don't have the facilities to recycle polystyrene but you can research and see if your area does, and if it doesn't, try writing to the local council to ask if they will investigate the process of setting it up.

Polystyrene is used to make so many disposable products it would be wonderful if recycling facilities were available in more places.


I always thought polystyrene was that kind of plastic that they use in examples in high schools as one that takes thousands of years to decompose when it gets left outside. I remember them showing us a polystyrene cup as an example.

Ever since then I've been too guilty to use any kind of plastic disposable cups or plates since most of them seem to be made of the stuff.

And there are quite a few alternatives to polystyrene, like those edible plates they make out of potato starch and even paper plates.

I didn't realize you could recycle polystyrene though. If I'd known that, I wouldn't have felt quite so guilty about it.

Of course, recycling takes energy, so it's still better to use plates that can decompose naturally, or better yet plates that can just be used again and again.

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    • Uniform polystyrene pellets can be used as bean bag stuffing.
      By: Nattawut Thammasak
      Uniform polystyrene pellets can be used as bean bag stuffing.
    • Polystyrene -- often associated with insulation -- can be melted down and recycled.
      By: brozova
      Polystyrene -- often associated with insulation -- can be melted down and recycled.