August 31, 2011

UW works to keep Styrofoam out of landfills

UW Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability

The UW has banned it, but the stuff worms its way onto campus packed in boxes. Its ubiquitous Styrofoam (the common name for foamed polystyrene), which has permeated the world as a low-cost, lightweight material with a wide array of uses. But the material is toxic and it never goes away.

Thats why UW Recycling started a Styrofoam recycling program a year ago that is now being expanded.

“Its 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.”

Why is Styrofoam so bad? The chemicals used in its production are known carcinogens, Johnson said. 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.

Not only that, but 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 carried by birds, wind and water flow, where it is deadly to wildlife and toxic to humans.

“We began the UW program 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. “Weve 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, Johnson said. Packing peanuts—another form of Styrofoam material—are also collected and provided free to local organizations and schools. In fact, last year the UW School of Drama used some of these packing peanuts to fill beanbag chairs on one of its sets.

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, its sold to a manufacturer.”

Through her companys 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 youre sitting at your computer, the monitor youre looking at, the keyboard and mouse youre using could be made from recycled Styrofoam,” said Lauderdale. “Since we opened our doors, weve diverted over 200 tons of Styrofoam from the landfill. Its not a big moneymaker, but its an unmet need.”

The benefits of recycling Styrofoam at the 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.”

Departments can recycle Styrofoam by collecting it in clear plastic bags and taking it to their buildings loading dock. For details on exactly how this should be done, see the Recycling and Solid Waste A-Z List.