Hey Mr. Green,
My wife and I try to minimize our purchases and we recycle or reuse everything possible (cardboard boxes, packing paper, and so on). But with Styrofoam, the trade name for expanded polystyrene (EPS), we’ve hit a wall. We don't have a local recycling program, and there is no local demand for this material. So we’re approaching critical mass because we won’t dispose of it until we can find an environmentally sound way to do so. There are mail-back programs that require packing up the EPS and mailing it to a manufacturer who does accept it. So I have two questions: 1) Does it make environmental sense to mail Styrofoam to manufacturers who will use it (I would consider the postage costs as an acceptable additional cost of purchases)? 2) Would it be safe, wise, and environmentally feasible to reuse EPS as attic insulation in its packing form?
–Name and location undisclosed
It makes some sense to ship Styrofoam peanuts to a recycler, or to drop it off at any local company (if you happen to be going near the place) that does lots of shipping and requires packing material. Unfortunately, consumers are recycling only about 3 percent of the good, clean packaging. It’s extremely difficult to recycle Styrofoam food containers because of contamination, which is why some cities have banned them. To find out where to send or drop off the loose peanut packaging, go to this link or call the Plastic Loose Fill Council’s “peanut hotline” at (800) 828-2214. For rigid package recycling, go to this link. Also check Earth911.
I'll spare you some of the math and boil it down to this: It takes about 45,000 British thermal units (Btus) to make a pound of Styrofoam, or about a third as much energy as in a gallon of diesel fuel, which has roughly 130,000 Btus per gallon. Since Styrofoam is very light, only 5 percent as heavy as water, it takes a lot of room. This light weight is what makes it such a fantastically efficient shipping material in the first place. A typical big rig semi can haul 60,000 pounds. Cram it with Styrofoam instead of, say, bottled water, and it can only haul 3,000 pounds max. So, at 45,000 Btus per pound, it took about 135,000,000 Btus to make that 3,000-pound load. Since diesel fuel contains 130,000 Btus, that's 135,000,000 / 130,000 = 1,038 gallons worth of diesel fuel in the load. Since a big rig gets around 5 miles per gallon (and obviously more when pulling a light load), recycling would yield a net gain in energy, unless the Styrofoam was being hauled 10,000 miles or so, which seems rather unlikely. If the haul is 500 miles, then it only takes 100 gallons of fuel for a load that took the equivalent of 960 gallons to make.
Of course, this is an oversimplified, best-case scenario, because 1) You probably can’t get 3,000 pounds on a load because of cavities, and 2) it doesn't account for the energy consumed at the recycling facility. But then again, if your Styrofoam were tossed in the garbage, energy would also be required to haul it to a landfill.
Regarding your question about reusing Styrofoam as insulation, as a dumpster-diving cheapskate scavenger, I’d love to be able recommend that, but even I can’t go that far. It’s combustible, and I would just hate to see your conscientious recycling efforts—and your house—go up in literal flames. Besides, sneaking it in between the ceiling joists would probably violate building codes. Granted, Styrofoam is a darn good insulator, as anybody knows who’s ever wrapped their hand around one of those stupid coffee cups that get tossed by the billions. In fact, it’s quite a bit better per inch of thickness than many other kinds of insulation, which is why they mold it into those sheets used for insulation. But these incarnations of Styrofoam are made fire-resistant, unlike those mysteriously sculpted white forms used to encase everything from pens to pendants to pistols.