Can you recycle polystyrene?

Polystyrene’s versatility is one reason it is among the most common types of plastic. From takeaway food trays through to a packaging material, it has dozens of uses. Like many plastics, however, it is slow to biodegrade.

While that is a useful attribute in terms of practicality, it makes it more important to dispose of used polystyrene correctly. Fortunately, it is recyclable.

The process is not straightforward, though, and for now at least, the UK doesn’t have sufficient infrastructure to do it on a large – or local – scale.

Can you put polystyrene in the recycling bin?

Polystyrene isn’t recyclable on regular kerbside collections.

This is in part because of a lack of the required infrastructure. It is both expensive and complex logistically to build polystyrene compacting machinery. There is also the challenge posed by gathering it in large enough quantities.

The advice from Recycle for Greater Manchester (R4GM), which works together with local councils in Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, and Trafford to encourage residents and businesses to manage their waste responsibly, is to put polystyrene in the general waste bin.

Some local authorities elsewhere in the country accept polystyrene packaging for collection, although it is unlikely to be recycled.

To find out what is recyclable in your area, and where to take it, visit recyclenow.com – the Government-funded national recycling campaign for England – and enter your postcode into the Recycling Locator.

Polystyrene beads

Why don’t councils recycle polystyrene?

While light, polystyrene is also bulky. That means it’s cumbersome to collect and transport.

Left at the kerbside, it is vulnerable to being blown away. Another challenge is that material earmarked for recycling must be free from contaminants beforehand.

That’s why recycling polystyrene used in food packaging, for example cups for hot drinks, is a rarity.

Low-density polystyrene can be subject to granulation – a machine process that separates the beads, before pressing them with unused granules to make new products. However, it is an expensive process.

How is polystyrene recycled?

Most people are familiar with expanded polystyrene (EPS), commonly used as takeaway food containers or as packaging to protect white goods.

It is 100 percent recyclable.

According to the Expanded Polystyrene Group, a part of the trade association the British Plastics Federation, more than half of all EPS packaging is recycled. UK businesses treat thousands of tonnes of EPS that way each year in enormous volumes of commercial waste streams, often from manufacturers or retail giants.

From there, it forms new EPS packaging and other EPS items, including insulation products for the construction industry.

Despite the damage discarded plastics cause to the planet, polystyrene has strong environmental credentials. It is extremely lightweight, insulates efficiently, and has a low carbon footprint given that 98 percent of it is air. Neither does it generate waste while being manufactured.

Perishables shipped in EPS has a longer shelf life, leading to less food waste. It is also the safest method of transporting temperature-controlled goods and medicines – even human organs for transplants.

A substitute for EPS is unlikely any time soon.

Polystyrene coffee cups relaxing at the beach

What to do with used polystyrene?

Try to find inventive ways to reuse old or waste polystyrene, perhaps to cushion your own packages. Any solution which avoids it being sent to landfill, where it is unlikely to break down, is a positive for the environment.

Repurposing polystyrene isn’t as difficult as you might think. You can use it:

  • In the garden; polystyrene cups are an ideal size for seedlings, or you could break up polystyrene foam and put it in plant pots to aid drainage
  • To transport frozen products during a defrost or house move
  • As a box for keeping food and drink items cold
  • As an artist’s palette (for example, washing egg cartons or food trays for reuse)
  • To stuff toys, pillows, or bean bags (in the case of packing beads)

Have a question for us?

Here at Fresh Start, we take seriously our responsibility to the environment.

Our commitment is total for minimising the amount of waste sent to landfill. We constantly review our working practices to find ways we can improve.

A fifth of the one million bins we collect and empty each year in Manchester and the North West are for recycling plastics. However, we always strive to do more.

According to figures released by Plastics Europe in its ‘Plastics – the Facts 2020’ report, close to four million tonnes of post-consumer plastic waste went for treatment in the UK through official schemes in 2018.

Just 32 percent of it was recycled. We can make more progress.

If your business is looking for a reliable waste management operator with green credentials, then call us today on 0808 178 1966 or submit your details using our contact form and we’ll get in touch as soon as possible.

Further reading

Close up of polystyrene beads.
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