Expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam, designated by the #6 resin code and commonly referred to by a brand name “Styrofoam” (much the same way facial tissues and bandages have become synonymous with one brand), is one of those materials that gives consumers who like to recycle fits. Many recycling programs don’t accept it. That’s not because it can’t be recycled; it’s that collecting and transporting the lightweight foam for recycling typically doesn’t make economic sense. You’re talking about shipping something that contains a lot of air when you need to consider fuel and other transportation related costs. It’s only when EPS foam is “densified”–processed to remove the air and reduce the foam’s volume, typically through crushing and compacting–that it becomes a commodity that is economically viable to transport.
Those of us who work or study on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus are fortunate to be able to recycle EPS packaging materials thanks to the campus Styrecycle program. Our campus partnered with the local recycler, Community Resource Incorporated (CRI), to purchase a densifier to transform all the foam coolers from labs and packing peanuts and cushioning from shipments received by departments into dense blocks to be sent off for use in new products. ISTC is one of the collection points for this program.
Hooray for having some of the EPS in our community diverted from the landfill! But, what about foam from non-university, residential sources? What about foam cups and other food packaging, which are not accepted even as part of Styrecycle on campus, but widely used by restaurants and retailers throughout the area?
Thankfully, Dart Container Corporation, which has a plant in Urbana, operates foam recycling programs throughout the US, and has recently added the Urbana location to its list of drop-off centers. Read the full announcement about the Urbana drop-off (along with new drop-offs in OK and ID) at https://www.dartcontainer.com/media/4099/final_new-drop-off-release_tradepubs.pdf. The Urbana drop-off, at 1505 East Main Street, is publicly accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and accepts “a wide variety of recyclable foam including foam cups, foam egg cartons, foam meat trays, foam ice chests, and foam packaging which is frequently used to protect fragile materials like TVs during shipping.” The foam can be recycled into products like “picture frames, baseboards, and crown molding.” Interested residents should collect their foam in clear or translucent bags, rinse or wipe foodservice containers to remove food or drink residue, and be sure to remove contaminants like straws, tape, or other non-foam materials.
Note that Dart does NOT accept foam packaging peanuts. The campus Styrecycle program does accept them from campus sources, but cautions that individuals be sure to distinguish those from cornstarch-based peanuts, which dissolve in water and are NOT accepted through Styrecycle. Residents of the Champaign-Urbana area that wish to recycle those can take them to the UPS stores in town or Mail & Parcel Plus (see Urbana’s “Where Do I Recycle It?” guide for addresses). Of course, you can always save some of them for reuse in packages you plan to send as well.
There are Dart foam recycling drop-offs in Chicago and suburbs as well, for UI staff and students based at UIC or those who return to the Chicago area during intersessions. Type in a location at https://www.dartcontainer.com/environment/ps-foam-recycling/ to find the nearest option.