What to do with FOAM?

As we move past the holiday season where on-line shopping and gift shipping have grown exponentially, many of us are saddled with too many empty packaging components which formerly contained numerous presents. As we go through the post-holiday clean-up, we realize how much this packing is encroaching on our space. As we get back to work, many of us are also stopping to get carry-out food, with meals in foam containers. So how do we best deal with these FOAM products in an environmentally friendly way, without loading up our trash bins and adding to our land fill volume? Tackling this problem is definitely not as easy as one may assume.

According to the Benefits of Recycling, even 500 years from now, the foam coffee cup you used this morning will be sitting in a landfill, as foam is not biodegradable. In the absence of a suitable solvent, it can last almost forever. Given that approximately 95% of its make-up is air, foam is extremely space-consuming. By volume, it is estimated that foam comprises as much as 30% of landfills worldwide. (Based on facts from Crown Shred, a recycling company based in Canada).

So what exactly is foam? What are the different types? How can various foam products be recycled?

Typically classified as #6 plastic, foam is a multi-faceted product with several variations and many uses. For this product type, one size certainly does not fit all, and I had to do a bit of my own research in order to fully understand foam’s ins and outs. So…. here is all you wanted to know about foam, and likely a bit more.

There are three major types of foam.

Food Service Products

For the majority of folks, this is the most familiar type of foam. It’s one of the staples in carry-out foods, in which we all indulge from time to time, some of us more often than others. This type of foam is comprised mainly of containers including drink cups, food trays and clamshell cartons.

foam 1

Packing Peanuts
Packing peanuts are those annoying light-weight fluffy foam pieces that somehow find their way all over one’s house. Unfortunately, besides contaminating your home, they can contaminate recycling streams for other types of foam. Therefore, they should not be comingled with other foam products. To complicate things a bit more, there are now biodegradable packing peanuts, which decompose in water, soil and compost. To determine whether your packing peanuts are the biodegradable type, place a few in the palm of your hand and squeeze them. If they can be squeezed together, you can be quite sure that they are the biodegradable type. The biodegradable form will also dissolve completely in water.

packing peanuts

Expanded Polystyrene (also known as EPS) for Packaging
This type of foam is a versatile, lightweight, high-performance product typically used to package a wide variety of items for safe delivery – from sensitive electronics to appliances to pharmaceuticals. EPS packaging has the ability to prevent or minimize product damage during transit, and also exhibits excellent insulation properties required for food and medical shipments.

polyethylene packaging foam

Recycling Foam Products
Under their curbside recycling programs, the majority of communities in Lake and Cook Counties do not accept any type of Foam #6. At this time, I am not aware of any curbside programs in Lake or Cook County that will accept packing peanuts. The best way to recycle foam packing peanuts is to reuse them yourself, or donate them for reuse. Many local pack and ship stores, including UPS stores, will accept clean peanuts. Note that most packing stores will not accept the biodegradable type, as they are felt to be less sturdy and more susceptible to damage. The biodegradable peanuts can be disposed of with the water in your sink, or in your trash where they will degrade in a landfill. A couple communities on the North Shore area currently collect certain types of foam for recycling.

• Wilmette’s curbside program accepts clean food service foam products which can be placed in the recycling bin. Wilmette also conducts a seasonal collection for EPS packaging foam.

• Winnetka accepts food service foam products and block foam only; these items can be dropped off from 8:30am to 4pm on weekdays inside the Winnetka Public Works building lobby, at 1390 Willow Road.

• Highland Park’s recycling center accepts both food service foam and EPS packaging foam products, but not peanuts. Note that foam products accepted here must have the #6 designation.

We recommend that you check with your local governing body or with R-Cubed to see what types of foam collection programs are available in your community. ABT Electronics, located at 1200 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Glenview, accepts most types of white foam products (no colors) with the exception of packing peanuts. Their drop-off is open Monday through Saturday from 2pm to 7pm, but closed on Wednesdays.


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