Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), more commonly known as styrofoam, is infamous for its lack of biodegradability. According to an estimate by the U.S. National Park Service, styrofoam takes 1,000,000+ years, or an indefinite amount of time, to decompose naturally. There’s a market for it because it’s lightweight, it’s a good insulator, and, most importantly, it’s cheap.
While I was at the USA Science and Engineering Festival this summer, I saw a table from the University of Wisconsin-Madison about EPS recycling, and it captured my attention because they were able to make huge cutbacks in styrofoam consumption on their campus by collaborating with companies outside of the university to repurpose styrofoam. Instead of sending the styrofoam, commonly used in science labs, to the landfills, they would divert it to a company that melts down the EPS and creates wooden-looking picture frames out of the remaining product. Next time you’re out shopping for picture frames, definitely keep an eye out for this awesome, sustainable alternative!
While I love this idea, it is not very practical for non-urban cities as a recycling option, since styrofoam is, ironically, obnoxiously expensive to get rid of. Taking it to landfills, as mentioned above is indescribably harmful to the planet, as it continues to fill our bodies of water. Recycling requires transporting it to a processing plant where it can be shredded, melted down, and then molded. Because it has so much volume with so little weight, shipping styrofoam is basically the same as shipping air. Compressing the styrofoam before shipping is a pretty good idea, but that would require having enough storage to accumulate enough styrofoam to justify turning on the compressor.
I think the best solution to this problem is to advocate for the ban of styrofoam in the food and drink industry at the very least. Many cities and counties across the US, most notably New York City and D.C., have begun to adopt this sort of legislation. Cutting EPS from its source is the most effective way to fight its growing presence in landfills and is an excellent compromise for slowly phasing styrofoam out of the market! Sign the petition here to bring this issue to Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s attention now!
Featured image from EcoMaine.org