What most people don’t know about recycling “Styrofoam” cups

That plastic foam cup might have a recycling symbol on it, but can it actually be recycled? Get the facts on recycling foam cups and food containers.

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You see the stuff everywhere. The foam cup your coffee comes in. The foam clamshell container that’s holding your takeout order. 

Many people commonly (but mistakenly) call this material “Styrofoam.” It’s actually a material known as “expanded polystyrene foam” — often shortened to EPS by recycling guides and waste management companies.

During manufacturing, hard plastic beads are heated and expanded into a super-lightweight foam that’s 98% air and can be used to make disposable cups, containers, packing peanuts and much, much more.

Many people also think these foam products are recyclable — after all, we’ve all seen that raised “chasing arrows” recycling symbol on the bottom of a foam cup or container indicating that it must be. But just how recyclable is plastic foam?

Can you recycle plastic foam cups?

Technically, yes — but don’t toss that foam cup in your blue recycling bin just yet. There are a number of factors that make recycling polystyrene foam incredibly difficult. Here are the facts:

  1. It’s hard to prepare polystyrene foam for recycling. Materials must be cleaned before they can be recycled into new products. Polystyrene foam is commonly used to hold food and beverages, and due to the porous and flimsy nature of the material, it’s hard to clean it enough to be recycled. It’s also not great for reuse, since the porous material can also harbor bacteria.
  2. Your municipal recycling program probably doesn’t accept polystyrene foam. Not all recycling programs accept all types of plastic. And even though polystyrene foam is designated with the recycling code “#6 PS”, it may not be accepted even by programs that accept other #6 plastics. That’s because polystyrene foam is a very different material from hard plastics, and not all facilities are equipped to process it. Sending polystyrene foam to a facility that can’t separate or process it can contaminate the entire recycling stream, preventing other, more recyclable materials from being recycled.
  3. Even if it’s accepted by a recycling program, it still might not get recycled. Unlike glass or cardboard, polystyrene foam is expensive to recycle at a cost-effective scale. Some recycling centers may send polystyrene foam to landfills anyway because of the cost. Worldwide, an estimated 2.3 million tons of polystyrene foam end up in landfills every year due to the many challenges associated with recycling it — that’s a lot of material, especially when you consider how lightweight it is.
  4. Even if it makes it to a recycling facility, it can’t be repeatedly recycled. Expanded polystyrene foam can’t be unexpanded back to its base plastic form. Some recycling facilities have the equipment to grind it up or densify it for reuse in other forms — but even then, its re-usefulness is short-lived. Plastic degrades every time you recycle it, and it can only be recycled two or three times before the material becomes so degraded it can’t be re-recycled. 

Polystyrene foam is hard to recycle, and as a result, tons of it are ending up in landfills and polluting our environment.

You can help us get rid of polystyrene foam cups by adding your name to our petition today.

Why is polystyrene foam bad for the environment?

To be clear, all plastic is bad for the environment. It’s made from fossil fuels and it takes hundreds of years to decompose. Since we started mass-producing plastic 60-some years ago, we’ve made more than 8.3 billion metric tons of the stuff, only 9% of which has ever been recycled. The rest of it has either been incinerated (dirtying our air) or is still out there in some form, clogging our landfills, littering our communities or polluting our environment.

But polystyrene foam is particularly bad:

  • Polystyrene foam is far more lightweight than most other types of plastic, making it all too easy for a gust of wind to blow it out of trashcans or landfills and into the environment. 
  • Polystyrene foam is flimsy and breaks apart more easily than other types of plastic, also making it too easy for bits of it to end up where they shouldn’t be. 
  • Even when corralled in a landfill, it still isn’t safe — polystyrene foam can leach toxic chemicals into the surrounding environment.
  • Polystyrene foam can break down into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics, which are now being discovered polluting every corner of the Earth, from the highest mountain ranges to the deepest depths of the ocean.

How can we get rid of polystyrene foam cups?

Polystyrene foam cups have become the calling card of our single-use convenience culture. We pick them up at drive-through windows and to-go counters and throw them away not long after — fast and easy.

But as we know, the plastic foam cups we throw away don’t really go away. And it simply doesn’t make sense to continue using them when more sustainable options are available. That’s why PIRG has been calling on fast food chains to stop handing out polystyrene foam cups.

With more than 3,500 locations in the U.S., Sonic Drive-In can begin to shift the fast food industry in a more sustainable direction by phasing out its iconic polystyrene foam cups. Tell Sonic to stop serving food and beverages packaged in polystyrene foam.


Janet Domenitz

Executive Director, MASSPIRG

Janet has been the executive director of MASSPIRG since 1990 and directs programs on consumer protection, zero waste, health and safety, public transportation, and voter participation. Janet has co-founded or led coalitions, including Earth Day Greater Boston, Campaign to Update the Bottle Bill and the Election Modernization Coalition. On behalf of MASSPIRG, Janet was one of the founding members of Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA), a statewide coalition of organizations advocating investment in mass transit to curb climate change, improve public health and address equity. Janet serves as Chair of the Board of Directors for the Consumer Federation of America and serves on the Common Cause Massachusetts executive committee, Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow board of directors, and Department of Environmental Protection Solid Waste Advisory Committee. For her work, Janet has received Common Cause’s John Gardner Award and Salem State University’s Friend of the Earth Award. Janet lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons, and every Wednesday morning she slow-runs the steps at Harvard Stadium with the November Project.