Photo: CHAIWATPHOTOS/Shutterstock

What to Do With the Styrofoam Containers You Collected During Lockdown

Sustainability News
by Tim Wenger Jun 5, 2020

This is The Climate Win, the most positive sustainability news around the world every week.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, patronizing local businesses in whatever ways deemed appropriate is inarguably the right thing to do. But efforts to increase sterility and sanitation during the pandemic have led to massive increases in single-use plastics — the vast majority of which cannot be or are not recycled. While use of expanded polystyrene (EPS), commonly called styrofoam (though that term is actually trademarked and is the formal name of a type of thermal insulation), had been declining for more than a decade, its use shot back up during the pandemic and resulting lockdowns.

This week’s Climate Win offers ideas for repurposing and properly disposing of all those takeout containers. Before jumping in, we prelude with the disclaimer that this advice is in no way meant to encourage or expand the use of EPS containers. Repurposing and even recycling them keeps them out of the landfill longer, but not permanently. Any way you look at it, EPS is terrible for the environment and in almost all normal circumstances can be easily avoided. (Even Dunkin’ Donuts recently stopped using its signature styrofoam coffee cups.) Before venturing out into whatever the new normal evolves to be, get yourself a to-go food container and a thermos.

Now, onto the meat and potatoes.

Styrofoam cups can be reused around the house. Should you lack a Bluetooth speaker, you could cut a couple slots out of opposing sides of the cup, stick your phone into them, and use the cup as a sound amplifier. A far more common use, and one that won’t invite ridicule from friends, family, and roommates, is to use the cup as a seed starter. Fill it with dirt and drop a few veggie or flower seeds in. Since styrofoam holds liquid, you won’t have to worry about water leakage. They can also be used as art canvases and then put on top of a small bulb as a lantern shade, giving you a piece of decor that even the most passionate of home designers won’t be able to replicate.

A quick Pinterest search returns hundreds of results for art projects that can be done with styrofoam food containers. Common uses include palettes for painting. Styrofoam coolers can easily be turned into compost bins and worm farms, as this video shows, and food containers could serve as a smaller prelude for collecting food scraps.

Is it possible to recycle styrofoam?

The answer is…it’s complicated. Some cities, though not many, do accept EPS for recycling. General EPS products are labeled with the number “6,” signifying its plastic number. Check your jurisdiction’s recycling policies and if plastic number 6 is accepted, you’re in luck. If you’re able to recycle EPS containers or cups, always wash them off thoroughly as food-stained recyclables are generally discarded. Also, be mindful of the color; some recycling facilities may only accept white EPS. The same goes for non-EPS takeout containers. Check the plastic number, rinse them out, and recycle appropriately as per your recycler’s guidelines.

More common than municipalities which accept EPS recycling are EPS drop-off facilities. These are often hosted by businesses, organizations, and sometimes even individuals who specialize in hard-to-recycle plastics and other products. The EPS Industry Alliance maintains a map of such locations on its website. If you live in a major city, there’s likely a location nearby. For those in smaller towns and rural areas, consider bringing your EPS with you the next time you visit an urban area, if that’s doable for you.

Climate wins of the week:

  • Powering large fleets of electric trucks and other commercial and government vehicles is now cheaper than powering gas-powered vehicles in most major US cities, according to a report in Utility Dive. The study found that while it’s likely only 10 percent of large fleet vehicles will be electric by 2025, that number jumps to 30 percent by 2030. Emissions from larger vehicles are much higher than those from personal cars, trucks, and vans, which currently account for around two percent of private electric-vehicle sales — but that number is also rising, as sales of personal EVs increased by 63 percent to more than two million in 2018 over 2017 numbers.
  • ScienceDaily reported that scientists have developed a form of plastic that actually biodegrades, and could be part of the solution to cleaner waterways around the world. Lead researcher Bryce Lipinski said, “If it eventually gets lost in the aquatic environment, this material can degrade on a realistic time scale. This material could reduce persistent plastic accumulation in the environment.”
  • With global protests over police discrimination and racial equality, it’s been a tough week in the news. We’ll leave you with a dose of bioluminescence-fueled inspiration. Keep fighting the good fight, because your voice matters and as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Discover Matador