Ease of Disposal

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the publication "Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States Facts and Figures for 2003," less than one percent (about 0.6 percent) of solid waste disposed of in the U.S. is polystyrene packaging - including both food service packaging (cups, plates, bowls, trays, clamshells, meat trays, egg cartons, yogurt and cottage cheese containers, and cutlery) and protective packaging (shaped end pieces used to ship electronic goods and loose fill "peanuts").(1)

The disposal of polystyrene is managed safely and effectively through the waste management hierarchy advocated by the U.S. EPA, which includes: Source Reduction, Reuse, Recycling, Waste-to-Energy Recovery, and Landfilling.

Source Reduction

Source reduction means less waste in the first place. Most source reduction occurs as part of the manufacturing process. A 1999 study conducted by Franklin Associates showed that overall, polystyrene packaging products have been source reduced nine percent since 1974 - this means that nine percent less polystyrene was used to manufacture the same quantity of finished goods.(2)

Between 1974 and 1997, the amount of polystyrene packaging diverted from landfills steadily increased due to continued source reduction, eliminating the need for more than 2,900 billion pounds of polystyrene over the 24-year period.(2) The U.S. EPA has identified source reduction as a priority in its solid waste management hierarchy.

Source reduction can make a positive contribution toward conserving resources - as significant as recycling. One way to evaluate the impact of source reduction is to compare the resources saved by preventing waste versus recycling. According to Fraklin Associates in order for polystyrene packaging and disposibles' recycling efforts to save as much energy as 408 million pounds source reduced in 1997, a recycling rate of 51 percent would have to be achieved.(2)


Reuse, the practice of utilizing polystyrene products in the same form, is important not only because it delays the final disposal of a product, but also because it reduces the manufacture and purchase of new products. As a result, reuse prevents waste. Nearly 30 percent of polystyrene loose fill (some times called "peanuts" because of its shape) is used again, making it one of the most commonly reused packaging materials in some retail locations. For mailing services, the reuse rate of loose fill is as high as 50 percent. The successful application of reused loose fill polystyrene reduced the demand for virgin polystyrene by 25 percent in 1997 alone and, to this day, continues to directly reduce waste.(2)

Other packaging and disposables commonly reused by the polystyrene industry include: pallets, insulated shipping boxes, test tube trays, auto part trays, ice chests and coolers.


The recycling of polystyrene protective packaging and non-packaging polystyrene materials, (such as audio/visual cassettes and agricultural nursery trays/containers) has increased dramatically during the last decade and there has been a decrease in the amount of polystyrene food service packaging recycled during this period. Non-food service packaging is not contaminated with food and other wastes as is food service packaging, and therefore is more cost-effective to recycle. Presently, polystyrene food service packaging is generally not recycled because it is not economically sustainable. It is important to note that because of unfavorable economics, no other post-consumer food service disposable material, including paper/paperboard, is recycled in a measurable way.

Before 1988, there was essentially no recovery of post-consumer polystyrene for recycling, but more than 57 million pounds of post-consumer and post-industrial expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging was recycled in 2004.  Including rigid, durable polystyrene and other grade materials, EPS post-consumer and post-industrial recycling represents 89% of all polystyrene recycled in the U.S. in

Some companies that make protective packaging are collecting it back for recycling through the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers (phone: 800/944-8448). In addition, some makers of loose fill "peanuts" have set up a network of collection sites for reuse and recycling of their polystyrene products. The “Peanut Hotline” (tel: 800/828-2214) automatically directs customers to local packing businesses willing to accept used EPS loose fill for their own packaging needs.  With locations in all 50 states, close to 1,500 collection centers offer consumers an esary access opportunity to return post-consumer loose fill for reuse.  This convenient, community-centered collection program reports a reuse rate as high as
50 percent.(3)

Products that have incorporated recycled-content polystyrene include: foam egg cartons, lunch trays, transport packaging, audio and videocassette cases, office supplies, and building materials.

Waste-to-Energy Recovery

Waste-to-energy combustion reduces the volume of waste and uses the resulting heat to generate steam and electricity. Derived primarily from oil and natural gas, polystyrene produces significant amounts of heat energy when burned, helping to more completely burn other waste.

When polystyrene is burned in today's modern incinerator, the thermal decomposition products are carbon dioxide, water vapors and a trace amount of non-toxic ash. Because it is derived from petrochemicals, polystyrene releases most of its energy as heat, and the resulting ash represents a material reduction of more than 99 percent by volume.


While recycling and reuse continue to grow in popularity, most of the waste in this country still goes to landfills. People assume the waste inside a landfill biodegrades. But the fact is that very little - not paper, not polystyrene, not even food waste - degrades in a meaningful way.

Polystyrene is effectively and safely disposed of in landfills. Modern landfills are designed to protect the environment from the liquids and gases produced during the very slow breakdown by reducing the exposure of garbage to air, water and sunlight - conditions needed for degradation. Therefore, by design, modern landfills greatly retard the degradation process to reduce the by-products that might otherwise contaminate groundwater and the air.(4)

Preventing Litter

The polystyrene industry cares about the environment. A widely held misconception is that litter is a problem caused by specific materials themselves rather than aberrant consumer behavior. The reality is that some people improperly dispose of materials by littering. Littering is a matter of behavior; people who discard materials into the environment usually do so because they don't think or don't care. Attributing the litter issue to one particular packaging material does not solve the problem because another type of packaging will take its place as litter unless behavior changes. To address concerns effectively, the polystyrene industry supports organizations such as Keep America Beautiful, that work to prevent litter across the country.

(1) "Municipal Solid Waste Generated, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States : Facts and Figures for 2004, US EPA,".

(2) "Waste Management and Reduction Trends in the Polystyrene Industry, 1974-1997," Franklin Associates, August 1999.

(3) "2001 National Post-Consumer Plastics Recycling Rate Study," R.W. Beck, Inc., December 2002 and "2004 EPS Recycling Rate Report”, Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers, Diagnostics Plus, published 2005.

(4) "Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage," William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, 1989.

RSS Feed Printer friendly version Site Survey