How to Reduce, Reuse & Recycle Styrofoam

Styrofoam is a material that won’t break down, can’t be recycled and will always remain on earth. Unless you know a little science.

Styrofoam is made up of long strands of styrene molecules with lots of air pockets. It’s called polystyrene. The styrene strands dissolve in acetone. They seem to disappear like magic when the acetone and polystyrene react together.

We must reduce our usage of styrofoam or replace it with more earth-friendly materials like corn. Packing peanuts made from corn will dissolve in water. Reusing styrofoam is another earth-friendly way to use styrofoam, but recycling it is not possible.

21 replies
  1. Sue Newell
    Sue Newell says:

    I tried this with some packing peanuts and nail polish remover. It did not work. The peanuts were not water soluble. Are there peanuts that are not water soluable or acetone soluble?

    Reply
    • Jessica G.
      Jessica G. says:

      I know I am 7 years too late – but I’ll respond anyway in case anyone else stumbles into this post like I did.

      Many, if not most, nail polish removers don’t contain acetone any more. It tends to dry out skin and make nails brittle, and can dissolve artificial nails (usually made of a special form of acrylic). Most modern nail polish removers now have more targeted solvents that are specifically designed to remove nail polishes, yet leave many other things alone. They also commonly have moisturizers, fragrance, and coloring added to them.

      It’s a lot better, and a lot cheaper, to get pure acetone. Most hardware stores including the big box stores have it, usually by the quart or gallon – and it’s generally very inexpensive. Buying it that way is much more efficient and cost effective if you want to use acetone for dissolving polystyrene, as a general solvent, for cleaning (it works amazing on whiteboards and will even clean off permanent marker), for smoothing 3d printed ABS, removing ABS, etc, etc.

      Reply
  2. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    Polystyrene or Styrofoam can be recycled! Refoamit and KWD warehouse have recycled more than 1.5 MILLION pounds in the last three years. We have a plant in N. Smithfield, RI and have public collection days scheduled in MA. Please see our web site for more information about recycling options!

    Reply
    • Jane
      Jane says:

      I am trying to get my office to recycle everything possible and was glad to learn of Refoamit. Any chance collection will extend to New York (specifically eastern Long Island)?

      Reply
  3. Julie Gintzler
    Julie Gintzler says:

    Sue – It is not the packing peanuts that skewed your results. It is the nail polish remover. It has to be nail polish remover with a high acetone content. Acetone is what breaks down the styrofoam.

    Reply
  4. Julie Gintzler
    Julie Gintzler says:

    Barbara – This is wonderful! What a great idea. But please indulge me as I share a teacher’s perspective with you. These days we are teaching children the terms Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Technically you cannot RECYCLE styrofoam. If we break down the term recycle it means that the item will come back as a new one the original. We Recycle aluminum cans because they come back as an aluminum can. We Reuse plastic bottles because they come back as tee shirts and carpet. I think what Refoamit is doing is AMAZING, but it is not recycling it is reusing or repurposing. I hope the patent comes through and it becomes a world-wide mission. I also hope teachers share this concept with their students. I suppose it is just the teacher in me that is hooked on the semantics of the terms. Best of luck in your endeavors as a company. I am rooting for you!

    Reply
    • Matt
      Matt says:

      Hi I know this is 5 years old but it bugged me so I thought I would comment anyway.

      Julie – recycling is converting the source into its raw material so that it can be made into something new. Aluminum can to another can. Plastic bottle into a t-shirt or carpet is an example of recycling. In recycling energy is used to “melt” it down and retain the raw material again instead of it hitting the waste stream. The raw material is then reused to make recycled products. Reuse is the act of extending a products life. Energy is not used to extract the raw material it is reused or repurposed. Ink cartridges being sent to be refilled, using the plastic water bottle over again or using it to grow plants out of, using old glass windows to make green house, wood from deconstructed houses to build a skate park, shredding rubber for playgrounds.

      Reply
  5. Steve Spangler
    Steve Spangler says:

    Barbara – I wanted to post the link of your site… http://www.refoamit.com/

    I think what you’re doing is amazing. I would agree with Julie that it’s actually a form of “reusing” and not really “recycling” as we think of it in more scientific terms. The general public uses the term “recycle” for anything that we “reuse.” From a marketing standpoint, the term recycle is better understood and has greater meaning to the public.

    Thanks for the comment. Can’t wait to share what you’re doing in an upcoming presentation on eco-science.

    Reply
  6. Brenda
    Brenda says:

    Steve-
    Great visual to get that learning into their heads! What should I do with the acetone/styrene mixture once I’m done? Can I separate the styrene out (was that the ball you guys showed?) Will the acetone that’s left still be useable for anything or should it be disposed of?
    Thanks for your wonderful ideas!

    Reply
  7. Julie Gintzler
    Julie Gintzler says:

    Hey Brenda -The most earth-friendly way to dispose of the liquid is to bring it to a place that does solvent recovery. You would have to do a google search to find one in your area. It can go down the drain, if it is a small amount, but it is very difficult for your water reclamation plant to reclaim that water, so I would keep it to a minimum if that is your disposal of choice.

    Reply
  8. Bruce Clark
    Bruce Clark says:

    I am trialling the acetone breakdown for remoulding into toy componants. ATM just trialing acetone/PT. So far its proved a success. Later down the track i will attempt to use broken pen ink to dye it. I have seen 4 ways to reuse styrofoam.
    1. break it down via rubbing and reuse in sealed bags as packaging
    2. Acetone and remould it (toy parts, picture frames)
    3. EPS foam densifier
    4. moulded products for cornices, picture frames etc

    Reply
  9. Mary Sarah
    Mary Sarah says:

    I just wanted to say that there is a brand new Recycling Product called a Styrofoam Densifier which melts the Styrofoam in a ratio of 90:1 into a “rope-patty.” The Styrofoam is then bought back by the company that manufactures the densifiers, and the “recycled” styrofoam is transformed into eye-glass and picture frames, fencing, bio-degrageable containers, ets. Fascinating stuff!

    Reply
  10. Conundrum
    Conundrum says:

    Or mix your liquid polymer with glow powder and make glowing ornaments etc.

    🙂

    I also came up with the idea of using it as a poor man’s PCB material by embedding copper wires in the surface and then using low melt 59C alloy to connect parts.

    Plus you can repair it using a hair drier and recycle the materials over and over !!!

    Its very translucent in thin layers and can also be used as a dielectric for capacitors once dry, as well as a base for supercapacitors when mixed with activated charcoal and graphite lock lubricant.

    Reply
  11. Maryann
    Maryann says:

    The nail polish remover MUST be 100% PURE acetone. We did this experiment with regular nail polish remover (which had acetone as main ingredient, but also several other ingredients) and it didn’t work. But when we redid with 100% pure acetone the styrofoam bubbled and dissolved immediately

    Reply
  12. Elisa
    Elisa says:

    this is incredible! thank you!

    i have worked with my workplace cafeteria to allow me to bring in my own reusable clean container for food instead of having to be served into a styrofoam, and my next battle is to get them to switch entirely to reusable containers (we all eat in our offices…)

    can you put a photo on this page so i can share with pintrest?

    Reply
  13. Susan Wells
    Susan Wells says:

    Thank you so much Elisa ! I have added some photos for Pinterest. Thanks so much for sharing it with your followers. Did you know you can also Pin video? Click the Pin It button on your browser and it will offer the video as well. Thanks again!

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Vaporize it – There are different types of styrofoam and here are simple and awesome ways you can reduce them!  I had no idea. […]

  2. Quora says:

    Is there a way to recycle EPS foam in the SF Bay Area?…

    Styrofoam cannot be recycled, only re-used. On the other hand, using acetone you can de-expand (deflate?) the styrofoam to regular styrene, thus reducing it to much less than 1% it’s original size. And I think then you can recycle the styrene but I’m…

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