Is Thermocol Recyclable (And if so, How?)

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Thermocol is a popular material made from polystyrene. It’s used in a variety of applications, including construction and packaging.

But is thermocol recyclable? Is it always destined for landfill? Or can it go in your recycle bin?

My family has recycled everything we can for many years - even before it was cool (or the authority started providing recycling bins). So we know a thing or two about what can and can't be reused - and how to do it.

In this article, I’ll explore the answer to these questions and discuss the benefits (and issues) of recycling thermocol.

I’ll also answer a bunch of thermocol-related questions that you might not have even thought of.

Is Thermocol The Same As Styrofoam?

Thermocol and styrofoam are brand names that refer to similar products but with some subtle differences.

Thermocol is an expanded polystyrene (EPS). BASF owns the brand.

Styrofoam is an extruded polystyrene (XPS). Dow Chemicals own the brand.

thermocol polystyrene packaging

What Is Thermocol?

Thermocol is a type of plastic made from polystyrene (recycling symbol #6). It’s light, strong, and has excellent insulation properties. That’s why it’s often used in packaging and construction.

Polystyrene is a petroleum-based product, so it’s not exactly eco-friendly. But, you can recycle it (sort of!), and that’s where things get interesting/complicated.

How Is Thermocol Made?

Thermocol is made by expanding polystyrene beads with steam. The beads are then molded into the desired shape.

The manufacturing process is energy-intensive, releasing harmful chemicals into the environment. That’s not good news for the planet.

Thermocol Uses

Thermocol has a variety of uses, both commercial and domestic.

Some of the most common uses for thermocol include:

  • Food Packaging
  • Medical Packaging
  • Construction
  • Take-out Boxes
  • Disposable Cups
  • Electrical Packaging
  • Furniture Packaging

Can You Recycle Thermocol?

You can, but it’s not as simple as tossing it in your curbside collection bin. Recycling EPS and XPS is tricky and expensive!

There are two types of recycling, mechanical and chemical.

  • Mechanical: Mechanical recycling is when the material is melted or ground down and reformed into new products.
  • Chemical: Chemical recycling is when the material is broken down into its individual chemical components. These chemicals can then be used to make new products.

So, which type of recycling can be used for unwanted thermocol?

Unfortunately, neither! Thermocol can’t be recycled mechanically or chemically.

Thermocol can only be recycled efficiently when ground up and compacted into a denser shape. The problem is that most regular recycling facilities don't have the right equipment to do this. Consequently, special locations have to be set up.

When ground down, thermocol can break up into a vast amount of tiny pieces, and this can cause problems such as blockages in traditional recycling facilities.

There is also a commercial barrier to recycling thermocol. Because it’s not a valuable material for recycling and requires delicate handling to prevent pollution, there are limited options for those who want to recycle it.

But all is not lost! There are still ways to repurpose thermocol. Read on to find out how.

Thermocol Recycling Process Alternatives

Just because thermocol can’t be recycled mechanically or chemically doesn’t mean it can’t be recycled at all.

Here are some ways to recycle or repurpose your used thermocol:

  • Specialized Recycling: There are a limited number of sites in the U.S. that have recycling cart facilities capable of recycling thermocol, styrofoam, and other forms of polystyrene. This handy map will help you find if there are any close to you.
  • Reuse: If you send lots of gifts (or maybe you’re a zero-waste retailer or a producer of eco-friendly gifts), you could keep (or collect) used thermocol to protect your gifts/products during shipping. If you don't make these items yourself, maybe you know a local person or company that does?
  • Get Crafty: Like plastic bottle caps, any thermocol that can't be recycled can be a handy addition to your craft drawer. Be sure to use acrylic paint when painting on porous thermocol.
  • Weird Science: Keep some thermocol in the garage and never miss an opportunity to educate and amaze your children. For example, wow them by squeezing lemon juice on it and watching it disappear right in front of their eyes.
  • Gardening: Small thermocol shipping boxes make great protective/warming pots for garden plants. Add some coffee grounds and watch your plants thrive!

NEVER Burn Thermocol

Burning thermocol releases harmful chemicals into the environment.

It’s also a fire hazard that could quickly get out of control.

What Are the Benefits of Recycling/Reusing Thermocol?

There are multiple benefits to recycling or reusing thermocol, including:

  • Reducing Landfill: By recycling your used thermocol, you can help reduce the amount that ends up in landfill.
  • Saving Energy: Reusing thermocol means less new thermocol needs to be manufactured.
  • Reducing Pollution: Recycling or reusing thermocol helps to reduce pollution because it reduces the need for mining and drilling (to extract the petroleum used to make thermocol).

Is Thermocol Biodegradable?

No, thermocol is not biodegradable. It will take about 50 years to start breaking down in landfill.

Government Regulation

The issue of thermocol disposal has become such a headache for some states that bans are being announced.

For example, Washington State has passed a policy that will prohibit the sale or distribution of three types of expanded polystyrene products:

  • Portable containers designed for cold storage
  • Foodservice products
  • Void filling packaging products

The void-filling packaging policy will begin on June 1st, 2023, and the other two on June 1st, 2024.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Can I Avoid Using Styrofoam?

Some easy wins in the fight against styrofoam include:

  • Take a reusable cup to your favorite coffee shop
  • Take a reusable container to your take-out food shop
  • Buy meat from butchers that don't use meat trays
  • Only buy appliances that use styrofoam alternatives (such as rigid molded cardboard) for shipping protection
  • Only buy from online retailers who use styrofoam alternatives (such as shredded paper) instead of packing peanuts

What Is The Best Styrofoam Alternative For Safe Shipping?

When it comes to package material (as mentioned in my eco-friendly mailers and sustainable packaging article), my favorite styrofoam alternative is honeycomb cushioning paper.

Are Plastic Containers Better For The Planet Than Styrofoam Ones?

Reusable plastic containers are better for the planet than single-use styrofoam ones. However, other materials, such as bamboo boxes, offer even more sustainable options.

The Final Word

So, there you have it! Everything you need to know about thermocol recycling (or lack thereof).

Can you recycle thermocol and reduce your environmental impact? The answer is a little complicated.

If you look closely at your thermocol or styrofoam, you’ll probably see a ‘6PS’ recycling symbol.

This might give you hope that it can be recycled curbside along with your bottles and plastic, etc. But this is, unfortunately, false hope.

Don’t simply toss thermocol or styrofoam into your recycling bins. Check the map provided earlier in this article to hopefully find specialist recyclers or drop-off locations in your area.

If you have no viable recycling options, try to upcycle or reuse. You should only toss it in the waste bin with the regular trash as a last resort.

Or, even better, you could try to eliminate your styrofoam use altogether.

Arabella put it perfectly in her excellent plastic recycling symbols article, “Polystyrene is notoriously difficult to recycle and is rarely accepted by plastic recycling programs. Your best bet is to try to eliminate its usage. Switch to reusable coffee cups, reusable or compostable cutlery, and stainless steel takeaway containers.”

Get In Touch

Do you use a significant amount of styrofoam? Or are you already trying to reduce your styrofoam use?

Do you carry reusable cups and containers everywhere you go? Are you lucky enough to have a styrofoam recycler close to where you live, and you can toss it into a dedicated recycling bin?

How far would you travel to visit a recycling facility to recycle EPS? Drop me a line and let me know.

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James is a senior editor at The Roundup and has been in journalism for over 10 years. He was born in the UK but raised in Florida, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. James is passionate about sustainable living and environmental issues which are reflected by his work as an editor of TheRoundup.org.
James Miller
James is a senior editor at The Roundup and has been in journalism for over 10 years. He was born in the UK but raised in Florida, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. James is passionate about sustainable living and environmental issues which are reflected by his work as an editor of TheRoundup.org.

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