Is foam recyclable?

June 16, 2023

Almost 80% (over 6,500 tons) of polystyrene waste ended up in Canadian landfills or waterways in 2012. But here's the big question: is foam recyclable? 

Foam: Recyclable or Not?

The increasing demand for plastic materials significantly impacts the environment and global climate. Today, Canadians discard over three (3) million tons of plastic waste yearly, and only 9% is recycled. The rest ends up in dump fields, waste-to-energy facilities, or the environment. 

Virtually all plastic materials – including foam - are created using materials made from fossil fuels, such as gas and oil. The extraction and transportation of these fuels and manufacturing them to create plastic products results in billions of tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

Canada's 2030 Zero Plastic Waste Plan

Canada aims to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030. To do that, the government now requires plastic packaging in the country to contain 50% recycled material by 2030.

Through its Notice of Intent published in the Canada Gazette, Part 1, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), outlined the product categories included in the scope of recycled content requirements. These products include:

  • Foam packaging (other than those in direct contact with food)
  • Bottles
  • Beverage containers
  • Non-bottle rigid containers and trays
  • Film and flexible plastic packaging 
  • Garbage bags
  • Waste bins

While the recycled content requirements are designed to mitigate the impact of plastic waste on the environment, their implementation also has several other advantages, such as:

  • Boosting the demand for recycled plastics
  • Creating market pressure for collecting, sorting, and recycling plastic waste 
  • Creating incentives for investments in supportive infrastructure and innovation
  • Reducing plastic waste in landfills, incinerators, or the environment as pollution
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions related to plastic manufacturing

Can You Recycle Foam Packaging?

All packing foams are lightweight products, making them ideal for packaging and shipping. However, that characteristic also makes their recycling pretty challenging.

The material is too lightweight to be processed by sorting machines and can contaminate other recyclables during recycling.

Furthermore, they contain plastic, and as we know, plastic is non-biodegradable and will contaminate the environment.

Nonetheless, there are several ways to recycle foam, and the recycling technique depends on the type of material the packing foam is made of.

Types of Recyclable Foam

There are five types of recyclable foam. They include:

1. Expanded Polystyrene (EPE) Foam

Expanded polystyrene is a low-density, semi-rigid material that can go in the blue bin. EPE comprises of 2% plastic and 98% air, hence its cost-effectiveness, high versatility, and capability to prevent product damage. Despite its upsides, transporting and recycling EPE foam is more expensive, considering they occupy more space. Since EPE is mostly air, the material must first be compressed before transporting, which is costly, and a reason most curbside recycling doesn't accept EPE foam.

Even so, several recyclers can handle EPE recycling. Below is an overview of how EPE foam is recycled:

  • EPE packaging foams are fed into grinding machines to cut them into smaller pieces
  • A machine compresses the cut materials to create solid, dense blocks
  • The densified EPE is sold to various manufacturers for reprocessing to create new products.
  • The reprocessing involves grinding, melting, and cutting the densified EPE into smaller pieces, which are recycled and made into new products. 

⚠️ Did you know? A popular alternative for polystyrene-based packaging is: Honeycomb Packaging!

2. Crosslink Polyurethane Foam (XLPE)

Crosslink polyurethane foam (XLPE), commonly known as styrofoam, is a closed-cell foam with a compact feel and resistance to water. It's formed by crosslinking – the process of chemically joining two polymer chains by covalent bonds using heat, pressure, or changes in pH. It has similar properties to polyethylene but also provides Class "A" surface protection, making them ideal for packaging medical supplies and equipment. 

The XLPE recycling process follows three fundamental steps:

  1. First, the XLPE packaging foam products are cleaned, dried, and ground up in a grinding machine
  2. Recyclers then add other accessories (such as recycled polyethylene, colouring agents, emollients, and fillers) to the crushed XLPE waste 
  3. The kneaded ingredients are extruded to produce plastic strips and tablets that are ideal materials for manufacturing cable filler pipes used in construction, low-voltage electrical accessories, and other civilian products. 

3. Zotefoams

Zotefoams, which is a brand name for XLPE form, are a high-performance, closed-cell, crosslinked foam made from common polyolefins and engineering polymers using temperature, pressure, and atmosphere-derived nitrogen. Zotefoams products are used globally across various industries, including sports, marine, construction, automation, medical equipment, and aerospace. 

4. Polyurethane (PU) Foam 

Another material used to make packing foam is polyurethane (PU), which is widely used as cushioning or padding for various commercial and consumer products. It's long-lasting, lightweight, supportive and has varying firmness and shape. Like polystyrene, PU foam must first be compressed before recycling.

So, how is PU foam recycled? The PU packing foams are ground before being reprocessed to create new products, which may include stronger insulation products, building materials for insulation, high-density panels, and new packing foams. 

5. Polyethylene (PE) Foam

Polyethylene foam is formed following an extrusion process in which the polyethylene is melted, and gas (nitrogen or carbon dioxide) is injected. The gas expands when molten PE leaves the machine, creating a foam structure. PE foam has impressive and useful properties as a packaging material. It is:

  • Non-abrasive
  • Can withstand immense pressure without compromising performance
  • Durable and versatile
  • Great shock absorption and structural stability
  • Good compression properties

PE foam is classified as "Class 4" plastic, which means it's 100% recyclable. Recycling companies leverage modern technology to handle PE foam more effectively and easily. Since PE is a thermoplastic material, it will melt when subjected to a certain temperature level. The melted PE is made into pellets and new products after cooling, injection moulding, and reheating. 

PE foam's high durability and cushioning features mean consumers can reuse it before its life cycle ends. 

⚠️ Remember Polystyrene, Polyethylene, Polyurethane, Crosslink can all be recycled this way using a foam densifier.

How to Safely Recycle Packaging Foam

One of the most effective measures for achieving the 2030 zero plastic-waste plan is to get folks to recycle (and do it safely). People often need clarification about what can or cannot go into the blue bin. Let's discuss the safest way to recycle packaging foam. 

Foam Recycling by Type

One rule of thumb is that regular PE foam can't go into the blue bin, but EPE foam can be recycled in the blue bin. Here are other ways to recycle packing foam based on product type:

  • Cups and food services containers - After confirming that foam cups and food service containers are accepted in the curbside blue bins in your residence, recycling them becomes a breeze. Like other recyclable food packaging products, wipe out any food residue in foam food containers and toss them in your curbside blue-bin receptacle. 
  • Foam packaging blocks - Among all foam products, foam packaging blocks are perhaps the easiest to recycle. For example, foam used to protect a computer screen. Most of these foams are accepted in curbside blue bins throughout Canada.
  • Foam packing peanuts – Packing peanuts are made from various materials that can contaminate other recyclables. Because of that, they are not recyclable. The best way to handle foam peanuts and divert them from landfills is to reuse them or donate them to local pack-and-ship stores. 

⚠️ Check this out SmartShield Packaging uses a starch-based packing peanut which you can literally eat! However, we recommend recycling them as they are biodegradable and decompose in water, leaving no toxic waste.

What Does Recycle Foam Become?

While most manufacturers think it's better to create products from new materials, other useful and quality products can be made from recycled foam. It's cheaper to create new EPE, PU, PE, and XLPE products from used ones. This approach is especially effective when it comes to packaging materials

Recycled foam can be used to make wide-ranging products, including:

  • Making new foam sheets – It's often cheaper to make new foam products from recycled, old foam products!
  • Playground materials – Closed-cell foam can be shredded to create rubber-free foam padding used as a spongy playground to provide a soft landing area for children. 
  • Decking and interior trims – When recycled EPE foam is mixed with plastic, it can be used to make a decking (for example, a swimming pool deck) and interior trim/molding to provide an interior design solution for homeowners on a budget.
  • Household goods – While recycled EPE can't be used to make insulated cups, food containers, foam trays, or any other packaging item that comes into direct contact with food, EPE foam can be recycled to make other household items: furniture, clothe hangers, door and window frames, seedling containers, etc. 

Choose SmartShield Packaging Solutions for Enhanced Protection of Your In-transit Goods

Whether you operate in the healthcare, automotive, or aerospace industry, you can trust SmartShield to provide high-quality, custom packaging solutions to protect your products and supplies during transportation or storage.

From double-walled corrugated cardboard and wooden crates to foam corners and shield packaging, we use various materials to satisfy your specific packaging needs.

Contact us today and tell us your packaging needs, and we'll work with you to deliver custom packaging solutions that ensure your in-transit or stored goods remain protected and intact. 



Article written by SmartShield