EarthTalk: How do I find a Styrofoam recycler
in my area? My company receives huge sheets of the stuff
on a regular basis and it just gets thrown straight into
the trash. What can a business do to get this stuff recycled
economically and efficiently?
-- S.R.M., Mesa, AZ
within the packaging industry as expanded polystyrene (EPS)
and usually bearing the “#6” recycling symbol,
Styrofoam (which is actually the trademark name for Dow
Chemical’s product) has long been an environmental
bugaboo, as it is contains chemicals known to cause central
nervous system damage and other health problems for workers
regularly exposed to it. And since it is difficult and expensive
to recycle, EPS tends to clog landfills already teeming
with toxic garbage.
EPS has proven to be one of the lightest and least costly
forms of packaging material, so the industry has worked
hard to make recycling it more cost-effective and convenient.
More than 80 packaging manufacturers, polystyrene suppliers
and equipment makers joined together in 1991 to form the
Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers (AFPR). The Maryland-based
industry association works to facilitate recycling between
EPS manufacturers and the companies that buy from them.
It currently boasts of overseeing the recycling of 10-12
percent of the post-consumer EPS packaging produced every
companies, which provide drop-off services at their facilities,
reprocess up to 60 percent of the EPS foam collected and
incorporate it directly into new packaging. Some of the
material is reformulated and used in a wide variety of durable
plastic products. Currently, more than 110 plant locations
serve as collection centers which together receive upwards
of 50 million pounds of post-consumer EPS packaging each
year. AFPR provides a comprehensive list of EPS drop-off
locations from coast-to-coast on its website. While companies
sending the EPS in for recycling must bear the shipping
or drop-off costs, they may save money over paying for disposal
fees at the landfill.
caveat: AFPR does not get involved in the recycling of the
foam “peanuts” so often used as packaging filler.
Most “pack-and-ship” shops (like UPS stores)
will accept used but otherwise clean foam peanuts to reuse
in their own shipments. Otherwise, the Plastic Loose Fill
Council, another trade group, runs a free web-based database
where users can find a local drop-off center by simply punching
in their zip code.
food service managers should bear in mind that recycling
of soiled food-grade EPS is more difficult and expensive
due to issues of bacterial contamination. Most EPS packaging
recycling centers will not accept such tainted foam. Many
food service companies have followed the lead of McDonald’s
and phased-out their use of EPS containers for disposable
dishware and to-go orders.
that don’t find it convenient to recycle or otherwise
dispose of large amounts of EPS (food-grade or otherwise)
might want to consider purchasing one or more StyroMelt
machines from UK-based Purex. The technology uses a thermal
compaction process to reduce the volume of EPS by up to
95 percent. The resulting solid EPS “briquettes”
are dense enough to make for good recycling fodder, and
also take up much less room than the foam they started out
as if they end up in the landfill.
of Foam Packaging Recyclers, Plastic
Loose Fill Council; Purex
EarthTalk: Aside from the obvious benefits
to mankind of reducing poverty, how would promoting more
economic equality around the world benefit the environment?
--Steele Shapiro, Seattle, WA
shown that in countries with a wide disparity between rich
and poor, environmental protection tends to be a lower priority.
The inverse is also true: Countries with greater economic
equality assign higher priority to safeguarding their environment.
The main determining
factor seems to be that lower income people tend to vote
against spending tax dollars on what are deemed costly or
discretionary environmental projects. In countries with
less disparity between rich and poor, such as throughout
Scandinavia, environmental protection is assigned a higher
priority and governments have enacted more stringent regulations
and policies accordingly.
Rochester researchers Laura Marsiliani and Thomas Renstrom
reviewed hundreds of academic studies of linkages between
economic equality and environmental protection and found
plenty of evidence to suggest that “poorer individuals
tend to prefer less stringent environmental policy.”
Previous research also supports their hypothesis that greater
income inequality causes lower environmental taxes, regulation
and spending around the world.
On a related
front, a team of McGill University researchers uncovered
a connection between growing economic inequality and an
increase in the number of plant and animal species threatened
with extinction. Dr. Greg Mikkelson of McGill’s School
of Environment led the study, which looked at income inequality
and biodiversity loss on two different scales: among 45
countries worldwide; and among 45 U.S. states. The researchers
found that the same general trend is evident in both cases:
Societies with more unequal distribution of income experience
greater losses of biodiversity.
While there is
often a trade-off between economic growth and environmental
quality, says Mikkelson, his study suggests that there is
also synergy between removing or reducing poverty and greater
conservation of biological diversity. If the U.S. were to
achieve levels of income parity comparable, say, to Sweden,
some 44 percent fewer plant and animal species in the U.S.
would be in danger of extinction. “Our study,”
adds Mikkelson, “suggests that if we can learn to
share economic resources more fairly with fellow members
of our own species, it may help us to share ecological resources
more fairly with other species.”
One group working
to help the environment by bridging the economic equality
gap is the Poverty Reduction and Environmental Management
(PREM) program at the Institute for Environmental Studies
at Holland’s Vrije Universiteit. Formulated by Dr.
Pieter van Beukering and Kim van der Leeuw, the program
has lined up researchers in 16 developing nations to develop
case studies showing how sustainability-oriented natural
resource management can lead to economic development for
poorer people. The researchers hope that their work in the
field will help show policymakers the way toward enlightened
regulatory practices that encourage both economic equality
and environmental protection.
Environmental Protection and Growth, “More
Inequality Means Less Biodiversity”, McGill Reporter,