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Styrofoam packing material can't be recycled

Is there any way to recycle the molded Styrofoam blocks that are used as packing material for so many products? My recycling center has big "NO STYROFOAM" signs everywhere. It's big and clumsy to put in the trash, and I can't imagine it will ever deteriorate. What can we do with it?

— Will D., Grants Pass

We're sad to say it, Will, but at least for the time being, you're going to have to learn to live with plastic foam as one of those mixed blessings of the modern world.

You can recycle your clean packing peanuts at a number of mail-and-ship stores, but there's no way to recycle the rigid foam packaging material known as Styrofoam, says Garry Penning, manager of strategic planning for Rogue Disposal and Recycling.

"It's so light and bulky, by the time you add freight (charges), it just doesn't pencil out" to recycle this material, Penning says.

You'll note we capitalized Styrofoam. That's because it's a trademark owned by the Dow Chemical Co. Just as Kleenex has become the generic term for paper tissues, Styrofoam has become the word many of us use for any piece of foam plastic.

Styrofoam is one of the best known forms of polystyrene, a long-chain hydrocarbon molecule that can be produced in several forms, besides the foam we know so well. Expanded polystyrene foam, also known as EPS, is a wonderful insulator, which makes it useful in construction, and it can be molded, which makes it perfect for packaging material.

Extruded polystyrene foam, XPS, is used in crafts and architectural modeling. You may have seen it used between two sheets of paper as a substitute for corrugated cardboard.

Polystyrene also can be extruded to produce plastic model kits and the "jewel box" cases of compact discs.

So, like it or not, we're stuck with this plastic. Penning says you can break up those big packaging blocks to make them fit in your trash can a little more easily, but be careful, lest you be stuck with hundreds of those little beads blowing around your yard.

Don't let this discourage your personal recycling efforts, Will. There are ways to recycle many other materials, and you can find them at the Web site maintained by the Jackson County Recycling Partnership: www.roguesmart.org.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.