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Earth Talk: Recycling Styrofoam
Dear EarthTalk: How do I find a Styrofoam recycler in my area? My company receives huge sheets of the stuff on a regular basis and it just gets thrown straight into the trash. What can a business do to get this stuff recycled economically and efficiently? -- S.R.M., Mesa, AZ
Known within the packaging industry as expanded polystyrene (EPS) and usually bearing the "#6" recycling symbol, Styrofoam (which is actually the trademark name for Dow Chemical's product) has long been an environmental bugaboo, as it is contains chemicals known to cause central nervous system damage and other health problems for workers regularly exposed to it. And since it is difficult and expensive to recycle, EPS tends to clog landfills already teeming with toxic garbage.
But EPS has proven to be one of the lightest and least costly forms of packaging material, so the industry has worked hard to make recycling it more cost-effective and convenient. More than 80 packaging manufacturers, polystyrene suppliers and equipment makers joined together in 1991 to form the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers (AFPR). The Maryland-based industry association works to facilitate recycling between EPS manufacturers and the companies that buy from them. It currently boasts of overseeing the recycling of 10-12 percent of the post-consumer EPS packaging produced every year.
Member companies, which provide drop-off services at their facilities, reprocess up to 60 percent of the EPS foam collected and incorporate it directly into new packaging. Some of the material is reformulated and used in a wide variety of durable plastic products. Currently, more than 110 plant locations serve as collection centers which together receive upwards of 50 million pounds of post-consumer EPS packaging each year. AFPR provides a comprehensive list of EPS drop-off locations from coast-to-coast on its website. While companies sending the EPS in for recycling must bear the shipping or drop-off costs, they may save money over paying for disposal fees at the landfill.
One caveat: AFPR does not get involved in the recycling of the foam "peanuts" so often used as packaging filler. Most "pack-and-ship" shops (like UPS stores) will accept used but otherwise clean foam peanuts to reuse in their own shipments. Otherwise, the Plastic Loose Fill Council, another trade group, runs a free web-based database where users can find a local drop-off center by simply punching in their zip code.
Also, food service managers should bear in mind that recycling of soiled food-grade EPS is more difficult and expensive due to issues of bacterial contamination. Most EPS packaging recycling centers will not accept such tainted foam. Many food service companies have followed the lead of McDonald's and phased-out their use of EPS containers for disposable dishware and to-go orders.
Companies that don't find it convenient to recycle or otherwise dispose of large amounts of EPS (food-grade or otherwise) might want to consider purchasing one or more StyroMelt machines from UK-based Purex. The technology uses a thermal compaction process to reduce the volume of EPS by up to 95 percent. The resulting solid EPS "briquettes" are dense enough to make for good recycling fodder, and also take up much less room than the foam they started out as if they end up in the landfill.
Contacts: Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers, www.epspackaging.org; Plastic Loose Fill Council, www.loosefillpackaging.com; Purex Styromelt, www.styromelt.com.
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