Green Scene Newsletter
Spotlight on Styrofoam
Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), better known by the trade name Styrofoam, is ubiquitous in our modern lives. It offers superior insulation and protects fragile items from damage. It is also cheap to manufacture and its super-light weight makes it ideal for shipping. There’s no doubt that Styrofoam performs valuable duties during its service life—but what happens after its purpose has been served?
Single-use food and beverage styrofoam ends up almost unanimously in the landfill: consumers on the go often don’t have easy access to a recycling bin, and even if they did, the containers are often so contaminated with food they’d be rejected by any recycler. That’s why some major cities, like New York, have banned styrofoam food containers entirely.
But even pristine white packaging styrofoam is refused by almost all municipalities. Why? The properties that make styrofoam so useful are also what make it unviable for recycling. Although polystyrene is an easily recycled plastic, expanded polystyrene (EPS) is only about 5% polystyrene—the other 95% is air. That gives EPS its lightweight, insulating, and protective qualities, but makes it a nightmare for recyclers. A large truckload of styrofoam would not be worth enough to cover the cost of fuel to transport it, much less justify its recycling expense. Styrofoam recycling is simply not profitable—in its current form.
There is, however, a simple solution: remove the air. The process of styrofoam “densification” involves breaking it down into tiny pieces and heating it to a high temperature. The air is released from the styrofoam, and the result is a hot, gooey “ingot” that cools quickly into hard, dense, and heavy blocks of polystyrene. These densified blocks are about 1/90th the size of the unprocessed styrofoam. A truckload of these blocks is indeed valuable to vendors, who can melt down the polystyrene resin and make a variety of new items, for less than the cost of buying new resin.
In early 2018, Sustainability Initiatives invested in a machine that can transform the unwieldy foam into dense, valuable blocks. Known as a “densifier”, it can process up to 50lbs of styrofoam waste per hour. With the help of student interns and our full-time recycling crew, we managed to save nearly two tons of styrofoam from landfills—quite impressive considering how light the average piece of styrofoam is!
Although contaminated food-grade styrofoam is not accepted, styrofoam packaging and especially styrofoam coolers, used mostly by science labs at the university, have proven to be very popular with our styrofoam recycling program. Collection bins are located conveniently in the loading docks or basements of 7 buildings on the downtown campus, including Petite Science Center and the Natural Science Center.
By diverting nearly 2 tons of styrofoam from the landfill, the university has saved on the cost of waste hauling, as the foam fills up dumpsters much more quickly than other waste. And our environment has been spared a tremendous volume of this pesky packaging, which can take many centuries to fully degrade and releases toxins into the soil.
Only a handful of universities in the country have their own densifier, and Georgia State is now one of them. We’re proud to be on the cutting edge of recycling technologies, and we look forward to growing our diversion rate with you.