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How Styrofoam is Recycled in Concrete

written by: Chrissy Dean•edited by: BStone•updated: 6/24/2010

Learn about recycled Styrofoam in concrete. Is this an eco-friendly idea? Find out why or why not.

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    Cleaning House

    Many avid green building proponents are pushing for the use of recycled Styrofoam, or polystyrene, in concrete. This is because Styrofoam does not biodegrade — polystyrene chunks take up landfill space indefinitely. Until recently, there were not many options when it came to recycling this synthetic product because of its composition. The only realistic option was using Styrofoam to make more Styrofoam. With no real practical use, throughout the years polystyrene waste has simply been thrown out and left to accumulate in the waste stream.

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    The Process

    styrofoam blocks 

    Today there are a few more options when it comes to recycling Styrofoam. Advances and research have opened up new ways for us to eliminate waste more efficiently. When it is not used to make more foam, polystyrene can be turned into materials such as clothes hangers, flower pots, picture frames, and of course concrete.

    To mix Styrofoam with concrete the polystyrene waste is typically made into small beads, and then added to make a more lightweight concrete. This mix is commonly known as stucco. It can then be used in floors, ceilings, and walls. It has great thermal insulating properties. Stucco is also just as sturdy as concrete, but easier to work with. It has also been shown to withstand floods and earthquakes with little to no structural damage, unlike the typical sheetrock used in homes.

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    Applications

    Hay bale construction 

    Recycled Styrofoam in concrete has many eco-friendly applications. Imagine building a green home of recycled tires, bales of hay, or anything else and being able to apply this stucco to the outside for protection. It would prevent water and fire damage, and create a more structurally sound and safe building to live in.

    Even if you are building or living in a traditional home, the use of this stucco can greatly reduce your energy costs. It is very insulating in both the summer and winter, and may just save you thousands of dollars when you DON'T have to repair structural damage like your neighbors after a flood. Not only is this great for the planet, it's just plain smart!

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    New Attention for an Old Invention

    This mixture is not a new invention. Since 1993, engineers and scientists have known that mixing Styrofoam with concrete creates a strong, waterproof, and light weight material. So why hasn’t it been more popular?

    Because collection efforts for Styrofoam have been virtually nonexistent. Mass collections are only starting to be exercised by private companies who wish to capitalize on the material. In 2008, Al Gore and SOMETHING created a $25 million prize for the company or individual who could create a commercially viable product which eliminated the most pollution and waste. This is when the reuse of Styrofoam to create stucco began to garner commercial attention.

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    Availability

    Today there are many commercially available blends of recycled Styofoam and concrete, with availability expanding constantly. Stucco can be purchased in blocks, slabs, and even spray or roll on form. In smaller towns, it may be harder to find a retailer or contractor who carries this eco-friendly stucco, so it may require a bit of online searching. As new uses are being discovered all the time, such as counter tops, flooring, and driveways, this sustainable, recycled, practical material will be around for a long time — at least as long as polystyrene waste is lying around.