Styrofoam Recycling + Disposal

The costs of StyrofoamTM recycling events have skyrocketed, and it is no longer feasible for us to offer them as in the past. We are evaluating the best path forward. Thank you to all who provided input in our event fee survey!

block styrofoam on white background

StyrofoamTM cannot be recycled in your home recycling cart. StyrofoamTM can be disposed in your garbage can at home.

You can recycle StyrofoamTM at special events and limited collection locations; however, it is not a valuable material for recycling. If you have only a small quantity, we encourage you to dispose of it in your garbage.

StyrofoamTM Recycling Events

We do not know when we will host a standalone StyrofoamTM recycling event next. Please do not stockpile additional material. We are evaluating how to manage significant cost increases and vendor challenges. We encourage you to dispose of small quantities in your garbage, or if you have a large quantity you can take it to drop-off locations (see below).

Other StyrofoamTM Recycling Options in the Seattle Area

Styrofoam is not accepted in your recycling cart at home. Paid doorstep collection of StyrofoamTM is currently available in the Kirkland area through a private service.

Free drop-off recycling is available in Kent and Shoreline. (Shoreline does not accept trays or takeout containers.) If you only have a small quantity of material, we encourage you to throw it away rather than making a special trip to a distant location, or combine with another trip to the same area. That way you can minimize the environmental impacts of transporting the StyrofoamTM, which could be greater than the environmental benefit of recycling a small amount of material.

Find private recycling services at King County's What Do I Do With directory. Ridwell provides doorstep collection of Styrofoam as an add-on to their recycling subscription service.

StyrofoamTM can be disposed as garbage in your regular trash can at home, or large quantities can be thrown away at the Houghton Transfer Station in Kirkland for a fee.

The Challenges of StyrofoamTM Recycling

StyrofoamTM is a challenging material to recycle. It is not a valuable material for recycling, so the cost to collect and process it is often more than the value of the recycled material. It also requires delicate handling to prevent pollution.

That's why there are so few recycling options available. Only one company in the Seattle area recycles StyrofoamTM.

Styrofoam is not worth a lot to recycle

StyrofoamTM is mostly made of air, so it only contains a small amount of plastic. It has to be melted down to get rid of the air before it can be sold to manufacturers that use recycled plastic.

It takes a lot of StyrofoamTM to make enough plastic to sell. A cubic yard of StyrofoamTM (3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet) produces only about 9.5 pounds of plastic. For comparison, a cubic yard of mixed plastic bottles and containers makes about 30-50 pounds of plastic.

Plastic is made out of oil. When oil is cheap, it costs less to make brand-new plastic than to use recycled plastic. Low oil prices mean fewer companies want to pay for recycled plastic material.

Recycling Styrofoam in your cart ruins other recycling

StyrofoamTM can't be recycled in your cart because it breaks into tiny pieces. Those can't be cleaned out from other recycling, so it makes other materials harder to recycle and worth less. Other cities have tried curbside StyrofoamTM recycling but experienced significant problems.

Recycling Styrofoam next to your cart would be expensive for everyone

It is not currently possible to provide free StyrofoamTM recycling next to your cart. Waste Management would need an additional truck and driver to collect StyrofoamTM. We would need to increase garbage collection costs for everyone to pay for it. That would be unfair to people who don't have a lot of StyrofoamTM to get rid of.

The private sector currently offers a paid curbside collection service for StyrofoamTM. This user-paid option, through Ridwell, is available for people who want curbside collection service.

Recycling Styrofoam next to your cart could cause pollution

There are other reasons that collecting StyrofoamTM next to your cart is not the answer. StyrofoamTM is lightweight and breaks apart easily. Pieces could get blown or washed into our stormwater system from the drains in your street. From there, they would pollute the nearest stream or lake. The small pieces of StyrofoamTM would not be possible to clean up. StyrofoamTM is already a common problem on beaches and in the ocean.

Styrofoam recycling events are also challenging

Events are the only viable option for the City to recycle StyrofoamTM. However, there are many limitations on hosting events, so we can't offer them all the time.

It is very expensive to run StyrofoamTM recycling events. We pay a vendor to staff the events and transport and recycle the material. Costs have increased significantly over the years. It now costs six times what it did when we started to host these events. Recent cost increases mean that we can no longer offer events as we have in the past. We are now evaluating whether a user fee could fund these events.

There is only one vendor in the Seattle region that hosts Styrofoam recycling events. Kirkland's busy events have exceeded their capacity to serve. We have worked with them on several ways to expand capacity, but there are few options left.

StyrofoamTM recycling events require a large site so there's enough space for the line. The events have outgrown all available City facilities, and there are a limited number of large parking lots available to rent for events in Kirkland.

These events also require a significant amount of staff time to coordinate and manage. They are the most time-consuming event we offer. We have a finite amount of time available, so there is a tradeoff between organizing these events and other programs.

So what should we do about Styrofoam?

Reducing how much StyrofoamTM is used is currently the best choice.

In 2021, Washington State passed a new law (S.B. 5022) to reduce plastic waste and strengthen markets for recycled plastic. The policy bans the use of Styrofoam packaging in mid-2023, and Styrofoam food serviceware like takeout containers and foam cups in mid-2024.

Extended producer responsibility is a system that makes companies responsible for the waste that they make, including shipping and packaging. A system like that could reduce how much StyrofoamTM people receive. It could also lead to more,  better StyrofoamTM recycling options.

What's best for the environment?

Typically, it is best to recycle materials that are able to be recycled. However, foam's lightweight nature means that large quantities of foam yield relatively small amounts of recycled plastic. Because foam is bulky, less material can be transported at once, which increases emissions from the transportation of foam relative to other recyclable materials. The popularity of Kirkland’s foam collection events often results in participants waiting in line in idling vehicles, adding to the negative environmental aspects of holding the events.

Using less foam is the best choice, though the materials in which products are packaged are often out of the consumer’s control. Recycling foam is the preferred option when environmentally and economically feasible, but throwing away StyrofoamTM is not a bad option either when all aspects of its lifecycle and the current foam recycling ecosystem are considered. We do want to limit how much waste people in Kirkland throw away, but StyrofoamTM is not a large proportion of most people's waste.

What happens to a material at the end of its life isn't always the best way to judge the best environmental choice. Foam's light weight and rigidity protects products during shipping while contributing little weight, which helps reduce the environmental impacts of shipping. It may be that the lower transportation impacts and protection from products breaking mean it's worthwhile to use foam even if it gets thrown away.

Putting Styrofoam in context

Our community cares a lot about the environment, and wants to recycle as much as possible. We're proud that our community is so committed to recycling.

America's waste system makes consumers responsible for dealing with packaging. But, companies are the ones who decide what materials to use in their packaging. Because they don't have to deal with the waste, they might not prioritize using a material that's easy to recycle.

Unfortunately, the system for recycling StyrofoamTM is limited, so consumers have few options. It's frustrating not to have easy access to the recycling services you want. However, looking at the big picture, there are other waste issues that may have a bigger environmental benefit.

StyrofoamTM feels like it should be a big problem in our landfill because it's bulky, but it only makes up 0.5% of the landfill by weight. In comparison, food makes up 22% of residential garbage by weight. When food is thrown away in the landfill, it releases methane gas.  Composting more of our food waste will have a bigger environmental benefit.

A lot of residents are already composting all their food scraps, and want to do more to help. The next big goal we have for the community is to make less waste overall. That means producing less garbage, less recycling, and less compost.

Learn about ways you can make less waste at your home