Thursday, January 23, 2014

Recycling Styrofoam

City of Richardson
Recently, I offered my own suggestions to the City of Richardson for how to make recycling easier. That prompted Bill McCalpin to inform me (hat tip) that the city recently held a focus group, which generated its own suggestions:
  • Make recycling even easier by not having people try to read the tiny print on plastics to see which one it is, but just have people throw all of the plastic in, and have someone else sort it later.
  • Make the paper bags for yard waste freely available to landscapers.
The second suggestion matches my own, except I want the paper bags (or "green" plastic bags) freely available to homeowners, too. (I do my own yard work.)

The first suggestion was new to me. Frankly, it puzzled me. According to the City of Richardson website, "The items below can all be placed in the blue bags: Plastics #1-7 (excluding styrofoam), ..."

All plastics, #1-7, are accepted. That's all there is. So, if it's stamped with a recycling triangle, no matter what number is inside, it's one of those #1-7 recyclable plastics. There's no need to try to read the tiny print inside the triangle to see which one it is. Anyway, that's what I thought. Then I considered that magic asterisk, "excluding styrofoam."

After the jump, what's that all about?

It turns out that plastic #6, polystyrene, comes in different forms, either hard plastic or soft foam. The soft foam form, expanded polystyrene, is commonly called styrofoam, although that's a misnomer, as Styrofoam® is a registered trademark of Dow Chemical Company. Most "styrofoam" products are not made of Styrofoam®. Expanded polystyrene is used in foam coffee cups, clamshell food containers, etc. Hard plastic polystyrene is used in items like DVD cases, forks and spoons, drinking cups, etc. In all of these products, whether foam or hard plastic, the plastic that's used is the same chemical polystyrene. Only the hard plastic form is commonly recycled, even though some of those foam polystyrene products are stamped with a #6 recycling triangle. Why is that? I can't speak for Richardson, but some sources say there are two reasons:
  • Foam products are light and bulky. It costs a lot to transport bulky foam items for the return you get by recycling them. So, recycling operations sometimes don't accept foam products. Of course, it costs just as much to transport them to the landfill, so this reason is not compelling to me.
  • Foam products are hard to clean; that is, it's hard to separate the plastic from the food stains. That makes recycling foam cups and plates unprofitable. So, recycling operations sometimes don't accept foam products.

This explains why you can't just look for the recycling triangle to decide what to recycle. But the rule of thumb is still pretty simple. If it's foam, don't put it in a blue bag, even if it has a #6 recycling triangle on it. If it's hard plastic and has a recycling triangle on it (no need to squint to see the number), put it in the blue bag.

Now, if we can only get the city to distribute paper bags for grass clippings...