How to Recycle Styrofoam Coolers: The Complete Guide

How to Recycle Styrofoam Coolers: The Complete Guide

Dennis Kamprad

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Do you have a Styrofoam cooler that has served its purpose, and now you don’t know what to do with it? (You only know you don’t wish to throw it in the trash.) Well, you’ve come to the right place, because we’ve collected some information and are happy to share suggestions on how to recycle that Styrofoam cooler.

You can recycle Styrofoam coolers at specialized recycling centers in your neighborhood. And if they are not conveniently located, then you could collect large quantities of Styrofoam from your community and hand them over to local businesses.  Or, instead, simply repurpose your Styrofoam coolers.

This guide has all the details you need to know to properly recycle Styrofoam coolers. We’ve also got some great repurposing ideas that are practical, fun, and beneficial for the environment!

Can Styrofoam Coolers Really Be Recycled, Not Just Reused, or Repurposed?

We indeed believe Styrofoam will take thousands–some say millions–of years to break down in any way that is meaningful for the environment. (And that’s only the beginning of its problems.) Odds are, it isn’t allowed in your community’s recycling collection bin. For these reasons, you may have been led to believe that Styrofoam cannot be recycled.

But contrary to what you may have heard, polystyrene (the material used to make Styrofoam) is technically recyclable. Your Styrofoam cooler could see new life as picture frames, home insulation, or even crown molding.

However, the bad news is that Styrofoam requires specialized facilities to process it; you can’t put it with your regular recycling. Instead, you will need to locate your nearest drop-off location, which requires a bit of research on your part. 

Recycle Your Cooler Through the Appropriate Center

Search for a Local Styrofoam Drop-Off Site

If you are familiar with the recycling program in your area, contact the organization to find out if you have a drop-off site for Styrofoam nearby. Even if you know of locations that may collect other types of recyclables, Styrofoam needs to go elsewhere and will need to be separate from other items being collected.

Your community officials can tell you if there is a recycling center or collection site nearby that accepts polystyrene foam products.

If needed, organizations like Earth 911 and the EPS Industry Alliance have online tools you can use to find drop-off locations in your area. If you discover that there is not a close drop-off location, you can mail your cooler to the AFPR and they will get it to where it needs to go. (Though you will have to pay for shipping.)

Recycle Your Cooler at Publix

Publix is a common grocery chain throughout the southern American states. Many locations have a reliable option to drop-off Styrofoam recycling inside or nearby conveniently available for you. If you don’t live in a Publix region, check with your local grocery stores or other commercial businesses that may have recycling programs to see if they offer Styrofoam drop-off.

Create Your Own Neighborhood Recycling Program

Unfortunately, you may not have a Styrofoam drop-off location nearby you, and getting your cooler recycled might be a long, complicated, frustrating process. In that case, you may wish to consider organizing a local program yourself.  Speak with other eco-conscious people and business owners in your area to bring this service to your community.

If you find a business that receives large quantities of Styrofoam, or you manage to collect a lot from the community, it may be possible to have the AFPR create a pick-up spot in your neighborhood. Keep in mind that asking for a new pick-up location will have a more successful outcome if you can ensure that large quantities will be available. 

Important Things To Remember for Recycling Styrofoam

Regardless of what you call it, foam products, like food containers, coffee cups, and coolers, are made from polystyrene–a petroleum-based product–and classified as Foam #6. This is denoted on the products with a “6” encircled with a recycling symbol. (You didn’t think that was an accident, did you?) 

Included among this is ESP (Expanded Polystyrene) and PSP Foam (Polystyrene Paper Foam). So if you hear these terms, don’t get confused; They’re all chemically the same thing.

However, there may be very particular requirements at Styrofoam drop-off sites. For example, rigid polystyrene and polystyrene foam both have #6 as their polymer number, but they often are not accepted together. So make sure you’ve collected detailed and accurate information about your cooler before tossing it into a bin and avoid contaminating the batch with the wrong item.

Also, ensure that your Styrofoam cooler (or any foam products) is clean and contaminant-free before dropping it off for recycling. Labels, tape, or film of any type will compromise the recycling process, and if that happens, everything will end up in a landfill. So take the time to verify that your cooler is clean.

Scientists and Researchers Are Making Progress

Have you noticed the word Styrofoam is often capitalized? That’s because Styrofoam is actually a brand name trademarked by the Dow Chemical Company in the 1940s. We just use the term the same way people say Kleenex to refer to tissues or call all glass cleaners Windex. The difference, in this case, is the unique type of polystyrene used to make it. 

The product has proved so useful that it seems to have reached the point of indispensableness. Indeed, human ingenuity grabbed the foam-football and ran with it before we had much insight into how much environmental impact it had. 

As we now know, recycling polystyrene isn’t very easy to do, and not every recycling center is capable of handling the process. It is done by chemical, thermal, and mechanical methods, though many processes can be considered more of reuse or repurpose. But the research of such has continued, methods have improved, and scientists remain hopeful that this issue can be better handled in the future. 

In fact, there are recent findings that mealworms and waxworms can survive on a polystyrene foam and plastic diet. This could lead to a breakthrough in ecoscience with an effective solution to this problem. It certainly sheds new, rosy light on the larva, at least.

Granted, not everyone is going to be on board with breaking down a Styrofoam cooler to feed it to creatures in their pre-metamorphosis state. Luckily, we’ve got some better ideas in mind on how to repurpose that cooler instead. 

3 Eco-Friendly Ways to Repurpose Your Styrofoam Cooler

Use It as a Planter Box

Create a beautiful flower bed out of your foam cooler or plant a small fruit-tree. Containers that have thicker sides will work best to help support the weight and contain the soil. Make a few holes in the bottom for drainage, and you’re good to go.

Start a Compost Bin

You earn double stars for recycling both the container and the kitchen scraps with this project! Plus, making your own compost is a great way to save money at the garden supply store. Just be sure the structural integrity of the foam cooler isn’t compromised when drilling ventilation and drainage holes.

Create a Perlite Substitute for Potting Soil

This is something easier done with smaller, thinner foam products such as cups or trays. But with a little effort, you can break down a foam cooler all the same. 

Break down the cooler by cutting it into small strips and then into squares about ½-inch (1.25 cm) in size. Place these strips in a blender with enough water to make the pieces float and blend for a minute or so until you’ve created your own little foam balls. Drain, dry, and it’s ready to be used.

Final Thoughts

It’s not always easy to recycle Styrofoam coolers, but it can be done. Even if you don’t have a drop-off location near you, there are national recycling resources available to help you get the job done. You can always take charge and organize a Styrofoam collection program in your neighborhood too, which will provide a great service not just to your community but to the environment at large.

Stay impactful,

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