Students Seek Sustainability by Recycling Styrofoam
Mark Atwater posted on April 30, 2014 |

StyrofoamTM. It may bring up good or bad connotations in your mind, but it is also likely you don’t think much about it at all. The average person isn’t likely to pass up on a product or challenge convention because of packaging. Then again, average people do extraordinary things. This includes a group of students from the University of Wisconsin – Madison that are taking small steps to make a big difference.

Expanded polystyrene, or StyrofoamTM by trade name, is used in all sorts of products. Although fast food packaging has largely moved away from it and there are alternative versions of packing peanuts, it hasn’t lost favor in many realms.

For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website states that, “Each year American [sic] throw away 25,000,000,000 Styrofoam cups. Even 500 years from now, the foam coffee cup you used this morning will be sitting in a landfill.” Coffee cups are just the tip of the iceberg as packaging is another major source of StyrofoamTM waste.

That is the front which the UW-Madison students are addressing. The students form the interdisciplinary “Styrocycle” team with representation from biochemistry, wildlife ecology and environmental studies, materials science and engineering and biological systems engineering. Their goal is to improve the reuse and recycling of StyrofoamTM shipping containers, first on campus, then regionally and beyond.

The group received funding through a phase I grant of $15,000 to study the environmental and economic implications of the work. They recently received a phase II grant of $90,000 to expand their reuse and recycle program in the Madison area.

The grant comes from the EPA’s P3 challenge (P3 stands for People, Prosperity and the Planet).  The team presented their efforts over the past year to multiple judging panels and the general public at the National Sustainable Design Expo where they were well-received. 

The group has been working with numerous companies and local agencies to create a cohesive network for reusing packaging. They have established 15 collection sites around campus and partnered with local companies to reuse the containers. They estimate that reusing the containers locally will reduce the carbon footprint by more than 70 percent.

The EPA estimates that in 2012 Americans recycled less than a third of PET and HDPE products when considering municipal waste. Those two are the most commonly recycled types of plastic, however, and participation with recycling symbols #3 through #7 is much lower as they are not as easily recycled. StyrofoamTM is #6, in case you were wondering.

Reusing StyrofoamTM containers might seem like a simple concept, but with the ease and convenience of purchasing them new, it is something companies are unlikely to do. Creating a supply chain back into industry is vital to make it work. These students are making a real difference by making sustainability easier.

Images courtesy of UW-Madison News (top) and EPA (bottom)

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