Tag Archives: styrofoam

OK, So We’ve Banned Styrofoam – Now What?

styroContainersWith Portland’s ban on polystyrene foam – AKA Styrofoam® – now in place, it’s time to start thinking about alternatives. After all, the need for disposable packaging is not going away any time soon.

Today’s edition of Triple Pundit has a great piece on this question, suggesting several alternatives,  and noting the upside and the downside of each.

From the Triple Pundit piece:

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans trash an estimated 25 billion polystyrene foam cups each year.

Compostable foodservice packaging is arguably the biggest trend in the industry right now because it’s an alternative that ‘ecologically-correct’ consumers love. Why? Because compostable containers are made using corn starch, palm fiber, peat fiber and even wheat stocks, and they break down into soil-conditioning compost.

This, juxtaposed against the fact that more communities across the world are now compost-ready, certainly tells us that the time is right for businesses and restaurants to switch from polystyrene foam containers to compostable alternatives.

It’s definitely worth a look.

And if you’ve ever wondered how polystyrene is made, check out this short video. It’s some fascinating stuff.


New Poll Finds Consumer Confusion About Plastics Recycling

Sorting recycled materials at the ecomaine Single-Sort Recycling Facility in Portland, Maine.
Sorting recycled materials at the ecomaine Single-Sort Recycling Facility in Portland, Maine.

This came through the ol’ In Box this morning, and we thought it was definitely worth sharing: turns out that a lot of people have a lot of questions about plastics and how to recycle them.

The poll, from the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) and Earth911.org, appears to have been an online, opt-in affair, so the statistical validity of the results is automatically called in to question, but we can say for certain that the basic premise of the poll is true: people have a lot of questions about how — or even if — various plastics can be recycled.

From an ISRI press release describing the poll:

“With more and more plastic being produced, it essential that plastic products that have reached end of life enter the recycling stream,” said Robin Wiener, president of ISRI. “As long as confusion reigns, consumers are apt to throw plastics away that should be recycled. This Earth911/ISRI Opinion Poll demonstrates a strong need for additional education, particularly by municipalities, on what can be recycled and how to do it.”

In 2011, 4.5 billion pounds of post-consumer plastic including, bottles, bags, film, and non-rigid plastics were recycled in the United States. The use of recycled plastics is instrumental in reducing energy consumption as it takes up to 87 percent less energy to produce plastic from recyclables than from virgin materials. Global production of plastics is expanding. Between 1950 and 2011, production grew at an average rate of nine percent annually, reaching 280 million tons with projected future growth.

The poll question and answer results are below:

What do you find most confusing about recycling plastic?

  1. Knowing how much food contamination is acceptable. 37%
  2. Understanding what types of plastic my municipality accepts in their curbside recycling program. 28%
  3. Finding where I can recycle plastics. 18%
  4. The meaning of the recycling numbers. 17%

Note: The Earth911/ISRI Opinion Poll was conducted via the Earth911 website (www.Earth911.com) from May 19, to July 23, 2014, and was answered by 1,177 individuals.

Here at ecomaine, a big part of our job is answering questions about how to recycle, so if you’ve got any, by all means, reach out to us. Give us a call, send us an email, hit us up on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, or leave a comment here on the blog.

We’ll answer.

The Styrofoam Packing Peanut: Who To Blame

Styrofoam packing peanuts.
Styrofoam packing peanuts.

Call us old-fashioned, but we still read the NYT – the paper version – with coffee and bagels on Sunday mornings, saving the magazine for last, to be read only after we’ve at least skimmed the hard news sections.

One of the best features in the NYT Magazine is a regular column called, “Who Made That?” which asks the eponymous question about everyday items that more often than not escape prolonged contemplation as we go about our hurly-burly lives. This Sunday’s installment explored the origin of the Styrofoam “packing peanut” – those little chunks of spongy, foamy stuff that cushion fragile items during shipping.

The piece profiles the scientist at Dow Chemical, Maurice Laverne Zweigle, who developed the material. It also features insight from one Robert Meisner, head of the packaging degree program at the University of Wisconsin at Stout. (Yes, you can get a BA in packaging. Who knew?)

Toward the end of the piece, Prof. Meisner says:

“For cushioning, nothing works as well as the foams, and they’re cheap to produce. Cut the polystyrene in half, and look at it under the microscope; it’s mostly air. They’re selling air.”

A growing number of communities are talking about banning the use of styrofoam containers in the food service industry.
A growing number of communities are talking about banning the use of styrofoam containers in the food service industry.

Prof. Meisner’s characterization deftly sums up the issues that swirl around the use of styrofoam, even as a burgeoning number of American communities  contemplate reining in the use of the substance, mostly in the context of the food service industry

But it’s worth looking past the surface of Prof. Meisner’s comment to unpack the deeper meaning of an important, inherent point in his remarks: production costs represent only a fraction of the true cost of styrofoam, and this cost must be calculated over the lifetime of the material.

Or, put another way: the cost of a  new car doesn’t begin and end with the purchase price;  one must also factor in the ongoing cost of the fuel and insurance.

And so it is with styrofoam.

The styrofoam industry loves to point out that styrofoam is recyclable, and, technically, this is true. But it’s notoriously difficult to do, and it’s the features that Prof. Meisner points out as virtues – the featherlight weight and inexpensive production costs –  that work against recycling it.

The Waste Hierarchy.Learn it. Live it. Love it.
The Waste Hierarchy.
Learn it. Live it. Love it.

Here’s why: a material is recyclable only to the extent that there’s a market for it, and that the material can be gotten to that market efficiently.

The recycling industry deals in tons – tons of aluminum and tons of cardboard, tons of glass and tons of rigid plastics, for example. Buyers of these materials are looking for 10-, 20- or 30-ton shipments.

When it comes to styrofoam, the material is so light that it has to be shredded and melted before it can be shipped with any degree of efficiency. Doing this is not easy, and it’s expensive.

And given the low production cost of creating new styrofoam, recycling the old material is that much less an attractive proposition.

As a result, most styrofoam never sees the inside of a recycling facility. Instead, it winds up in landfills or, worse yet, the natural environment.

So what to do?

The answer can be found in something called the Waste Hierarchy: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Compost, Waste-To-Energy and, finally, Landfill.

The best thing to do with styrofoam, according to the Waste Hierarchy, is to reduce our use of it in favor of other materials that can be more easily reused or recycled.

In other words, the best styrofoam is the styrofoam you don’t use.

Portland Moves Toward Banning Styrofoam

Styrofoam is difficult to recycle and often ends up in the water.
Styrofoam is difficult to recycle and often ends up in the water.

New York City’s done it.

So has Amherst, Massachusetts; San Francisco, California; and Portland, Oregon.

And soon, you might well be able to add Portland, Maine to the burgeoning list of cities that have banned the use of styrofoam food and beverage containers.

The Portland City Council’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee last night endorsed a ban on polystyrene – AKA Styrofoam – food and beverage containers. The legislation will be taken up by the council as a whole at a future meeting. Should it pass there, it will become law.

Portland City Councilor Jon Hinck, quoted in a story in this morning’s edition of the Portland Press Herald, said:

“We are a coastal community. Our identity has been (tied) to the marine environment for a long time and this polystyrene is inevitably ending up in the marine environment, where it is problematic.”

The styrofoam industry has come out hard against the ban, saying that styrofoam – or polystyrene, as it’s generically known – can be recycled.

And technically, that’s true.

styrocupgrassBut the reality is, something is recyclable only to the extent that there’s a market for it and, beyond that, that the material can be efficiently brought to the market. Here in Maine, that’s hard to do, because the very properties that make styrofoam attractive as a packaging material – light weight and low cost – make it very difficult to recycle.

Because it’s so light, transporting styrofoam is expensive. You could fill an entire 18-wheeler with it and the load would probably only weigh about 100 pounds. Because recycled materials are sold by the ton, the transportation costs associated with recycling styrofoam quickly add up.

Beyond that, there’s the issue of downcycling; polystyrene used for food will be contaminated with food waste and can’t be used for that purpose again, even if it is recycled. Styrofoam that’s been used for food or drink service can only be recycled into packaging materials. Food service polystyrene has to be manufactured new.

But let’s set aside the transportation and downcycling arguments for a moment and stipulate that the material could be economically transported to a recycling facility for recycling.

Processing polystyrene takes some expensive gear. First the styrofoam needs to be shredded, melted and pressurized before it can be extruded into a useful raw material. These processing facilities tend to be located around urban hubs to minimize transportation costs.

Here at ecomaine, we don’t have that equipment.

Which means that the vast majority of the styrofoam used in Maine probably ends up in landfill, where it will sit for pretty much forever because absent an effective chemical solvent, styrofoam does not biodegrade.

waste hierarchy graphicSo what’s the answer?

For guidance, we look to the Waste Hierarchy: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Compost, Waste-To-Energy and, finally, Landfill.

According to the Waste Hierarchy, reducing the use of resources, whether it’s paper, plastic, glass or metal, is always the best policy.


Any questions?