Polystyrene beads are the tiny bits of expanded polystyrene that are used to create, among other things, the familiar stuffing of beanbag chairs and stuffed toys. They are used to create the loose, protective packaging material that is commonly called "packing peanuts." Polystyrene itself is a thermoplastic material that exists in solid form at room temperature and melts when heated. It is a recyclable material, but many recycling facilities are not equipped to process these "number 6" recyclables. Local recycling facilities can confirm to residents whether or not polystyrene can be discarded with paper, glass, and aluminum recyclables for curbside pickup.
The most common form of plastic, solid polystyrene is a hard, colorless plastic that is semi-rigid and limited in flexibility. It can be processed as a transparent material or infused with artificial coloration. Disposable picnic cutlery, model vehicles, smoke detector casings, reusable "doggie boxes" that are gaining popularity with chain restaurants, and DVD cases are everyday examples of the myriad uses of solid polystyrene.
The "beans" in beanbag chairs are made of polystyrene beads, also called polystyrene pellets, and are an example of foamed polystyrene. Packing peanuts, home insulation, and foam drinking cups are further examples of foamed polystyrene. The polystyrene beads in a beanbag chair will eventually need replacing; although they aren't biodegradable, they will become flattened and begin to break down as they are crushed and air is squeezed from the foam. As with other polystyrene products, local recycling authorities should be contacted if curbside pickup of this material is not available. Polystyrene is typically manufactured in one of three forms: extruded polystyrene, expanded polystyrene foam, and extruded polystyrene foam.
Produced by Dow Chemical, extruded polystyrene foam insulation is sold under the trademarked brand name of Styrofoam®. Like other products that have become so commonplace that a brand name has become a generic term (e.g., Q-Tips, Kleenex, Popsicle), Styrofoam® is often used as a catchall word to describe other foamed polystyrene items. The polystyrene used for beanbags and packing peanuts is not extruded polystyrene foam (XPS), but expanded polystyrene foam. In addition to furniture stuffing and packing peanuts, expanded polystyrene beads are also used to create the custom-molded packing material that cushions fragile objects for transport.