Love it or hate it, Styrofoam is everywhere.
Since its introduction in 1954, Styrofoam (the common name for foamed polystyrene) has permeated as a low-cost, lightweight material with a wide array of uses. It is easy to make, can be formed in any shape, resists moisture, resists light and insulates temperature. As a shipping material, Styrofoam protects products and reduces costs better than any known material.
With so much value, it can be hard to remember why Styrofoam is such a bad thing. For two reasons: It’s toxic and it never goes away. Styrofoam is petroleum based and starts as small, spherical beads that contain an expanding agent called hydrocarbon. The polystyrene beads are heated with steam, and as the hydrocarbon boils, the beads soften and expand up to forty times their original size. The end product is about 98% air.
The chemicals used in the production of Styrofoam are known carcinogens. While it is considered safe in everyday use, it is extremely toxic when burned. As a result, it cannot safely be incinerated and typically ends up in the landfill after a single use where it takes up considerable space.
No known microorganism has yet been shown to biodegrade Styrofoam. Even more concerning, the lightweight, beadlike material breaks apart easily and can enter back into the surrounding environment by birds, wind and water flow, where it is deadly to wildlife and toxic to humans. Styrofoam is abundant as a form of pollution in the outdoor environment.
While UW has eliminated all polystyrene-based consumer products, Styrofoam is widely received in shipments. Recognizing the need to deal with the Styrofoam before it ends up in the landfill, UW Recycling began a program in 2010 to collect and recycle Styrofoam.
Since 2010, the University has recycled 11,971 pounds of Styrofoam. Since Styrofoam is so light, this is a small weight compared to other recyclables. However, the space savings in the landfill is much more significant. Packing peanuts—another form of Styrofoam material—are also collected and provided free of charge to local organizations and schools. Styrofoam is easily recycled into new products, but due its light weight it is not economical to collect in its original form. To recycle Styrofoam, UW Recycling contracts with a local company, Styro Recycle, to process the material into a reusable form that can be remade into plastic products.
The benefits of recycling Styrofoam at UW include waste diversion, lowering garbage collection costs and reducing the number of bags needed to contain the waste.