Sustainability | Ecotrope

Recycling 101: Styrofoam

Ecotrope | July 11, 2012 3:37 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:31 p.m.

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Some Styrofoam can be recycled by a machine that turnes it into plastic that can then be manufactured into other products – like picture frames.

Some Styrofoam can be recycled by a machine that turnes it into plastic that can then be manufactured into other products – like picture frames.

Oh, that pesky Styrofoam. You hate to throw it away because it takes forever to decompose. But it’s certainly not recyclable – not in the curbside bins, anyway.

However, according to Metro Recycling Specialist Patrick Morgan, it is possible to recycle *some* Styrofoam.

“Not the food stuff,” he said. “For packaging pellets we refer people to one of their local packaging stores that will take them for reuse. And a couple businesses accept block Styrofoam. But the stuff that’s kind of flexible and kind of cushion-y is completely garbage.”

Two Portland recyclers accept Styrofoam drop-offs: Total Reclaim and Recology.

The block Styrofoam that can be recycled usually bears the number 6 inside a triangle, according to Don Hawkins, regional account manager for Total Reclaim. And much of the stuff that’s collected for recycling in Portland will be turned into plastic, shipped to China, made into picture frames and shipped back to the U.S.

A company called Green Max recycles Styrofoam into picture frames and decorative molding at factories in Shanghai and Zibo.

A company called Green Max recycles Styrofoam into picture frames and decorative molding at factories in Shanghai and Zibo.

Total Reclaim charges a fee for Styrofoam drop-offs, and there are restrictions on what kind of Styrofoam can be recycled.

The company uses a machine called a “densifier” that shreds and “kind of melts” the material into plastic, Hawkins said.

The Styrofoam shrinks down quite a bit in the process, Hawkins said. A 53-foot tractor trailer load of Styrofoam reduces down to a block of about 4 cubic yards.

Recycling Styrofoam isn’t a big moneymaker, Hawkins said. It requires labor, energy and storage space that cost money and reduce profits.

But it is good for community relations, he said, because lot of people want to recycle Styrofoam.

Total Reclaim started recycling Styrofoam as a companion to its electronic waste recycling program because electronics packaging is a big source of Styrofoam.

By recycling Styrofoam, Hawkins said, you can extend the useful life of a material that’s going to be around for awhile regardless of whether or not you reuse it.

“It’s nearly infinite,” Hawkins said. “I’m sure it does have a definitive life span, but a piece of Styrofoam produced today will certainly outlive me and probably my grandchildren.”

The recycled Styrofoam plastic used to make picture frames can be ground up later and used again in another plastic product.

However, Hawkins warns people to think before they jump in their cars to drive one hunk of Styrofoam to the drop-off site.

“I think some folks will drive completely across town to bring us a very small quantity of foam thinking they have somehow saved the planet, and I’m not sure they’re thinking about the impact of the gas it takes to drive it across town,” he said.

Larry Wilkins, general manager at Recology, said his company’s Styrofoam plastic also goes toward manufacturing picture frames in China – through a company called Green Max.

Recology doesn’t charge for small residential drop-offs, but will charge for truckloads and is also selective about which Styrofoam gets recycled.

Most of the Styrofoam his company takes in comes from homeowners, he said, and “it’s shocking how much it piles up.”

The company sells a shipping container of the Styrofoam plastic product about every three months.

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