Is Styrofoam biodegradable? Can it be composted?

  • Date: May 14, 2022

Styrofoam has found a use in almost all the industries. You can see why – it is lightweight and it’s insulating and protective properties make it ideal to be used in lots of different ways. From an environmental viewpoint it is controversial. Unfortunately, it is not readily recycled by standard household collections. Diverting it from landfill is a challenge. What other disposal options are available? Is Styrofoam biodegradable and can it be composted?

Firstly, what is Styrofoam?

Styrofoam is a foam-like material made from the organic compound styrene. The word ‘Styrofoam’ is used by many as an interchangeable term for polystyrene. In fact, Styrofoam is the brand name for a specific type of polystyrene.

So, is Styrofoam biodegradable?

An item is said to be biodegradable if it can be broken down by micro-organisms such as bacteria. Natural materials, essentially, return to nature. Styrofoam is not biodegradable. It is not a natural product – although derived from petroleum it is very much a human creation. It will break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time but will not technically ‘biodegrade’. Every piece of Styrofoam, or other polystyrene, you have used in your lifetime will still be in landfill if you threw it in the trash. As well as the space element, landfill presents some significant negative environmental impacts – from emission of greenhouse gases to soil pollution. Of course, Styrofoam is not fully to blame here – but it certainly contributes to the problem.

Is Styrofoam compostable?

Composting is becoming a common practice in backyards across the country. It is a great way to dispose of organic waste whilst producing a nutrient-rich fertilizer for your garden.  It is a common misconception that ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ are interchangeable terms. Not all biodegradable items are fit for the compost pile. However, to be compostable an item must be biodegradable! Since standard Styrofoam, and polystyrene, are not biodegradable they cannot be composted.

But there is some good news….

There are a growing number of biodegradable polystyrene-type products on the market. Keen to protect your package and the planet, Green Cell Foam is a great example. Their products have similar properties to synthetic varieties – but have the added bonus of not being destined to centuries in landfill!

After use, they can either be mixed in the compost pile or even dissolved in water and washed down the drain! If you have received a package and are unsure if the sender used biodegradable polystyrene packaging, you can do a simple test. Pop it in some water – if it dissolves, it is the biodegradable type. The synthetic ones won’t be altered at all by water.

As well as washing the biodegradable stuff down the drain, composting is a great option. Composting ingredients fall into two distinct categories – nitrogen-rich ‘greens’ and carbon-rich ‘browns’. It is important that you know which category an item falls into before adding it to your pile. Biodegradable Styrofoam falls into the carbon-rich, ‘brown’ category.  Ensuring you have a decent mix of both ‘browns’ and ‘greens’ is vital to the health of your pile. Too much carbon can result in dryness in the pile, whilst too much nitrogen can result in overheating – even combustion! As with all composting, a bit of trial-and-error is required, but you won’t go far wrong with a 1:1 ratio. Monitor and adjust as you go.  

As well as being biodegradable and compostable, Green Cell Foam also has the added benefit of being made from U.S grown corn. Using more local ingredients makes it even more eco-friendly – less distance to travel makes for a lower carbon footprint. It ticks a lot of the boxes when it comes to eco-friendly Styrofoam alternative.

The bottom line

Diverting waste from landfill will reduce our impact on the planet. And composting is a great way to do this – it will save you money on shop-bought fertilizers and is kinder to nature too. Unfortunately, standard Styrofoam (and polystyrene in general) is not biodegradable and can’t be composted. Biodegradable innovations, such as Green Cell Foam, are a major step in the right direction when it comes to living in a more planet-friendly way. These types of packaging can, literally, disappear before your eyes in water as opposed to living on indefinitely in landfill.