Trashed Styrofoam does not degrade easily, as it is made from non-renewable petroleum products. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 2 million of the 3 million tons of Styrofoam products produced in the United States sit in landfills. Due to the vast amount of Styrofoam filling the landfills, researchers are motivated to explore better disposal solutions for Styrofoam.
Some of the Styrofoam disposed today is reconstituted or ground up to be reused for other Styrofoam uses. For example, old Styrofoam insulation panels are ground up into small pieces and used for filling bean-bag chairs. Styrofoam beverage cups are reused as small containers for planting seeds, meat packaging trays are reused for craft projects. Some companies, such as UPS and FedEx, collect donated Styrofoam packaging and reuse the material for packing boxes. However, due to such limited applications, the reuse of Styrofoam is not a very common disposal method.
Styrofoam is sometimes disposed in large incinerators in locations where disposal in landfills is prohibited. Moreover, some consumers choose to burn their Styrofoam, to prevent excessive landfill quantities or because no recycling centers exist in the region. However, when burned, Styrofoam releases toxic gases such as dioxin and styrene gas which is harmful to the nervous system. Despite more controls over the release of toxic gases into the atmosphere, the Environmental Protection Agency has found styrene to exist in stack emissions at incinerator plants.
Scientists are researching ways to make Styrofoam disposal safer for the environment. Researchers at the University College Dublin in Ireland have discovered a bacterium that feed on styrofoam and breaks it down into biodegradable waste, Scientific American reports.