Foam poses recycling challenges

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Capital News Service

LANSING — It’s a windy Saturday morning in East Lansing.

The city’s recycling drop-off center is busy despite a chill.

Dean Miller pulls his Jeep up to the container designated for polystyrene, commonly referred to as Styrofoam or foam, to unload.

Recycling polystyrene is a task Miller only took on when East Lansing added a collection container last March.

“We were just landfilling it,” he said while tossing packaging foam into the container. “This is the first time we had anything close by. I feel a lot better. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be reusing things that can be reused.”

Polystyrene is a versatile plastic resin that’s used in two forms: solid and foam, according to the American Chemistry Council. Solid polystyrene is used for auto parts, toys and kitchen appliances. Foam polystyrene is used for common products from surfboards to egg cartons.

Recycling foam is inconvenient. It’s often not included in curbside recycling because it easily breaks apart and can contaminate other recyclables, and because it’s costly to transport.

Polystyrene products used in food service are especially considered contaminants because they must be cleaned, and even then might still hold food residue.

Since polystyrene is 90 percent air and 10 percent plastic, it’s light, which complicates the transportation process. A lot of the product is needed to cover transportation costs.

To recycle foam, many consumers must find special drop-off centers that take foam.

“People think ‘Well, it’s just a little bit, they will figure out what to do with it.’ But it is a huge contaminant, and that’s actually one of the primary reasons we opened up our recycling site,” East Lansing environmental services administrator Cathy DeShambo said.

“We wanted to give our residents some place to take it and to discourage them from putting it in their [recycling] carts,” she said.

East Lansing started taking foam after the city received a Department of Environmental Quality grant to purchase the container and established a partnership with Dart Container Corp. The company, which built a foam recycling facility at its Mason headquarters, takes and sells the foam.

Some East Lansing residents took their foam there until East Lansing held its annual community recycling event that accepts not-so-easy-to-recycle items like polystyrene.

“We know that some folks were putting it in their curbside recycling cart either because they were doing what we refer to as ‘wishful recycling’ or really not paying attention to the fact that foam is listed as an unacceptable material in our recycling guide,” DeShambo said.

“And of course some of it was going to the landfill,” she said.

On average, the city collects close to 600 pounds of foam a week. Foam recycling has gotten so popular that a second foam collection container was added to the drop-off site in October.

Dart doesn’t release figures for how much foam recycling it processes at its Mason location or its 21 other foam recycling drop-off centers in the U.S.

“We have been steadily increasing,” Dart recycling and community outreach specialist Ashley Elzinga said. “A lot of people are really eco-conscious nowadays.”

The Foodservice Packaging Institute, a trade association for the industry, represents companies like Dart. In 2014, institute members created the Foam Recycling Coalition to increase recycling of foam foodservice packaging.

While the coalition tracks how much foam gets recycled every year, it doesn’t share that data publicly. It does, however, talk about the impact on foam recycling from grants it provides.

“We as an industry recognize that too many of our products are getting landfilled and not recycled or composted, and so we ended up setting up some special projects to work on how do we get our products recycled or composted,” Foodservice Packaging Institute President Lynn Dyer said.

Expanded polystyrene foam, which is used for packaging, also has its own trade organization called the EPS Industry Alliance. The organization of more than 60 companies was formed in 2012 to develop recycling programs and awareness.

A 2016 study by the EPS Industry Alliance found 63 million pounds of packaged foam was recycled by consumers that year, up from 36.7 million in 2012 and 24.9 million in 2000.

A larger goal that could help increase foam recycling is for the product to be considered recyclable by the Federal Trade Commission.

Foam must meet qualifications before it’s considered recyclable, including recycling access to at least 60 percent of the U.S. population, making sure recycling facilities are willing to process it and having end markets for the material, Dyer said.

“We’re working on getting all that to happen,” she said.

When Dart started its Mason foam recycling center in 1990, engineers took a unique approach for the foam to be turned into another product.

The company’s Elzinga said, “I call it a Frankenstein. There are all these different machines they made work together.”

One piece of equipment is an orange juicer that squeezes water from the foam after it’s washed.

Foam is very light, which makes it difficult to condense and transport, so Dart started to manufacture its own densifiers to compact it for shipment.

Large quantity foam users like hospitals and universities lease densifiers from Dart.

Recycled foam is turned into tiny plastic pellets at Dart. Pellets are sold to companies that turn them into items like picture frames, rulers, combs and cores that hold register receipt tape.

“We just want to want make sure our products, from the front end of life to the end of use, are recovered and they are handled in a sustainable manner,” Elzinga said.

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