Styrofoam Recycling Expands at UW
Love it or hate it, Styrofoam is everywhere.
Since its introduction in 1954, Styrofoam (the common name for foamed polystyrene) has permeated as a low-cost, lightweight material with a wide array of uses. It is easy to make, can be formed in any shape, resists moisture, resists light and insulates temperature. As a shipping material, Styrofoam protects products and reduces costs better than any known material.
With so much value, it can be hard to remember why Styrofoam is such a bad thing. But here are two reasons: it’s toxic and it never goes away.
Styrofoam is petroleum based and starts as small, spherical beads that contain an expanding agent called hydrocarbon. The polystyrene beads are heated with steam, and as the hydrocarbon boils, the beads soften and expand up to forty times their original size. The end product is about 98% air.
The chemicals used in the production of Styrofoam are known carcinogens. While it is considered safe in everyday use, it is extremely toxic when burned. As a result, it cannot safely be incinerated and typically ends up in the landfill after a single use where it takes up considerable space.
No known microorganism has yet been shown to biodegrade Styrofoam. Even more concerning, the lightweight, bead-like material breaks apart easily and can enter back into the surrounding environment by birds, wind and water flow, where it is deadly to wildlife and toxic to humans. Styrofoam is abundant as a form of pollution in the outdoor environment.
While UW has eliminated all polystyrene-based consumer products, Styrofoam is widely received in shipments.
“It’s impossible to say if foamed polystyrene will ever be completely replaced,” said Eric Johnson, manager of UW Recycling & Solid Waste. “We need to deal with the Styrofoam that ends up in our hands before it heads to the landfill.”
Recognizing this need, Recycling & Solid Waste began a program in 2010 to collect and recycle Styrofoam.
“We began by collecting Styrofoam blocks and containers from campus buildings, such as Magnuson Health Sciences Center, that generate a large volume of the material,” said Johnson. “We’ve now expanded the program campus-wide.”
In 2010, the University recycled 1,334 pounds of Styrofoam. Since Styrofoam is so light, this is a small weight compared to other recyclables. However, the space savings in the landfill is much more significant. Packing peanuts—another form of Styrofoam material—are also collected and provided free of charge to local organizations and schools.
Styrofoam is easily recycled into new products, but due to its lightweight nature it is not economical to collect in its original form. To recycle Styrofoam, UW contracts with a local company, V & G Styro Recycle, to process the material into a reusable form that can be remade into plastic products.
“It takes a lot to make a little,” said Marilyn Lauderdale, owner of V & G Styro Recycle. “We have a thermal processor that grinds, crushes and compresses the material. Once we generate 40,000 pounds, it’s sold to a manufacturer.”
Through her company’s process, the material changes in density at a ratio of about 50:1 and is shaped into manageable bricks. This usable form can then be easily shipped to companies that make a variety of plastic products.
“As you’re sitting at your computer, the monitor you’re looking at, the keyboard and mouse you’re using could be made from recycled Styrofoam,” said Lauderdale. “Since we opened our doors, we’ve diverted over 200 tons of Styrofoam from the landfill. It’s not a big moneymaker, but it’s an unmet need.”
The benefits of recycling Styrofoam at UW are many, according to Johnson. “It reduces the amount of landfill-bound waste, it cuts garbage collection costs, and it reduces the number of plastic bags needed to contain the garbage. We expect the program to continue to expand in the years ahead.”
For more information about Styrofoam recycling at UW, see the Recycling & Solid Waste A-Z List.
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