How Long Does It Take for Styrofoam to Biodegrade?
Styrofoam is a plastic-based material with lots of different uses. Most of us encounter it in culinary environments. White Styrofoam cups are common in cafeterias and canteens throughout the country. Many takeaways deliver burgers, kebabs and other delights in Styrofoam containers.
As it’s very lightweight and easy to shape, it’s also found in everything from car parts to electronics packaging, roadway stabilisation systems, children’s toys and even surfboards. Styrofoam is everywhere. Unfortunately, this presents some big problems for natural environments as the material is not biodegradable.
This article explores the recycling challenges associated with Styrofoam and suggests possible alternatives. As climate change continues to harm our planet’s natural resources, smarter, cleaner choices are the key to a brighter future.
Does Styrofoam Biodegrade?
You may have heard that Styrofoam is completely non-biodegradable and, therefore, never disappears naturally. The good news is this isn’t true. so, how long does It take for Styrofoam to biodegrade? The bad news is it takes around five hundred years. Yes, really. It is considered one of the most environmentally damaging materials in existence. There are several different reasons for this.
The first is that even after Styrofoam has biodegraded – which typically doesn’t occur even within six generations – contains a chemical, called styrene. This chemical may leach into the ground and generate toxic air pollutants. This contributes to an already fragile ozone layer and runs the risk of polluting groundwater.
The second is that before new environmental regulations were introduced, the UK was discarding half a million disposable coffee cups every day, many of which are made from Styrofoam. Great Britain alone produces 2.5 billion waste coffee cups every year and only recycles 1% of these. While new eco-friendly policies have been designed to change this, effects are slow and may not be evident in our lifetime.
How Long Does It Take for Styrofoam to Biodegrade?
There are many misconceptions about Styrofoam, so let’s dig deeper into this particular question. Interestingly, there is some evidence to suggest Styrofoam will biodegrade in three or four years if exposed to very strong sunlight. The plastic is sensitive to light and can be broken down via photo-degradation.
However, the conditions need to be just right for this to occur. The Styrofoam must be completely exposed to light and a degree of oxygen and water flow. When it’s discarded in landfills, the material rarely has access to any of these things. Both light and space are at a premium in these locations. The outcome is a much, much slower decomposition process, one that can take several hundred years.
So, it’s not accurate to say Styrofoam never biodegrades. It always does eventually. The process is just slow, and it’s frustratingly messy. There’s no form of artificial or natural decomposition that doesn’t come with undesirable consequences. For instance, burning Styrofoam might seem to be a solution to this waste disposal dilemma. However, incineration releases more pollutants into the atmosphere.
Why Does Styrofoam Take So Long to Biodegrade?
Styrofoam’s chemical makeup can explain why the material is so durable and tolerant of weathering conditions. The material’s atoms are joined with extremely strong bonds. It is an exceptionally stable substance, and this allows it to resist acids, bases, salts and other corrosives as well as water (for a time).
While it is non-toxic in a normal state, it is believed heating Styrofoam (yes, even in the microwave) may release harmful carcinogens. This is why you’re strongly advised to remove takeaway food from Styrofoam containers before heating or reheating. All of the properties which make Styrofoam such a useful material (lightweight, durable, inexpensive, extended shelf life) are the same reasons it causes so much trouble to dispose of after it’s intended use.
Does Styrofoam Or Plastic Break Down Faster?
What can we do to change our habits and start using less Styrofoam? There are certainly alternative options out there. Styrofoam isn’t the only choice for our packing peanuts, takeaway cartons and disposable coffee cups. So, could we begin to phase out its use by switching to a less damaging material?
Plastic is the obvious option and already the packaging material of choice for many manufacturers. The problem is plastic packaging behaves in a dishearteningly similar way to Styrofoam when placed in landfills. Like Styrofoam, one plastic container can take up to 450 years to fully biodegrade when out of direct sunlight.
It means we shouldn’t be thinking about switching to plastic, not as a long term solution anyway. Eventually, single-use plastic will also need to be phased out and replaced with a material that’s much more environmentally friendly. However, the pace of plastic recycling does currently outstrip that of Styrofoam recycling.
There are far more options for recycling plastic than there are Styrofoam. Both materials generate pollutants if burned, but plastic can be easily repurposed into more takeaway cartons, playground equipment, shopping bags, lawn furniture, plastic lumber, toys and much more. Where local recycling programs are robust and effective, a substantial proportion of waste plastic can now be reused.
What Is the Best Way to Dispose of Styrofoam?
To further complicate the issue of Styrofoam disposable, it’s true that most local recycling facilities do not process this material. One of the reasons is it’s nearly impossible to scrub clean in the same way as other packaging materials. Styrofoam is frequently used in food containers. Think of the foam insert that comes with some frozen supermarket pizzas.
Even if the Styrofoam insert gets removed immediately and/or washed, it will still pick up grease stains. It’s a very difficult material to clean and, as such, recycling centres reject it because it costs them too much to process. This is not true for every recycling facility, so it’s still worth checking the ones in your area.
The bad news then is you may not be able to recycle your Styrofoam at all. Check with recycling facilities in your neighbourhood to make sure. If none accept the material, local councils say dispose of it like your normal waste. Put it in your general waste bin alongside other non-recyclable items. A few exceptions include floor insulation, wall insulation, fish box cartons and the seating and insulation used in automobiles. These specific materials are sometimes recyclable (if their recycling number is six, it means they are not suitable).
If you want to avoid adding more Styrofoam to landfills, avoid single-use packaging. Buy a reusable coffee cup. Frequent takeaways that serve food in recyclable plastics. It’s a small change with minimal impact on an individual level but, if we were all to do it, demand for Styrofoam would plummet.
What Are Some Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Styrofoam?
One of the most effective things you can do as a consumer is prioritise environmentally conscious businesses. It is becoming increasingly common for eco-friendly takeaways and manufacturers to use alternative materials like mushroom cubes, bagasse, plantable cardboard packages, eco packing peanuts, repurposed coffee cups, Sugarcane Clamshell, bamboo cartons, peat plastics and takeaway containers made from gelatine.
There are more environmentally friendly, biodegradable materials out there than you may think. Plus, they’re not just great at naturally breaking down and returning to the earth, they are also safer for food use. The natural packaging options listed above don’t produce any harmful toxins when heated. There are no carcinogens or pollutants. Often, they’re made from the same or similar stuff to the foods you’re eating.
For more information on eco friendly packaging please see this article.
The Final Word On Recycling Styrofoam
Over the last decade, the realisation that Styrofoam does not lend itself well to reuse has caused us to rethink its manufacture. Where it is possible to process the material and repurpose it, people are strongly encouraged to do so. However, the single most effective thing we can do to reduce waste in landfills is consume consciously.
Every Styrofoam coffee cup or takeaway carton has the potential to stick around on our delicate planet for five hundred years or more. The best way to prevent this is to reject its presence in our everyday lives. Effect change with your wallet. As a consumer, you are powerful. You can choose to give your money only to businesses that responsible, environmentally friendly and passionate about finding safer solutions for our world.