The Sustainable Campus (Trends and Innovations)
In December 2013, the University of Illinois launched
the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment
(iSEE) on the Urbana-Champaign campus. The Institute
was created to lead an interdisciplinary approach to researching
solutions for the world’s pressing sustainability, energy and
environmental needs today and tomorrow — with the emphasis
on finding real-world answers to these problems. Styrecycle, a
new iSEE-supported and student-pioneered specialty recycling
program on campus, was created to cut down the volume of Styrofoam
headed to the landfill.
The Problem of Styrofoam
Expanded polystyrene — more commonly known by its brand
name “Styrofoam” — is everywhere. At the University of Illinois,
countless bottles of chemicals, biology specimens and fragile parts
of lab equipment arrive in packaging made of Styrofoam every day,
and, sadly, almost all of it gets tossed in the trash.
Styrofoam is notoriously hard to recycle — not because it is
difficult to process into new products, but because Styrofoam is
designed to weigh next to nothing. This is great when you want
to protect items without increasing shipping costs, but economically
upside-down when the Styrofoam itself is the material being
shipped. With a large volume and low density, a semi-truckload
of Styrofoam fetches a low price — often less than the cost for the
fuel and driver’s pay.
The solution, then, is to get more of the commodity into the
truck to make the trip more profitable.
In 2015, a joint team from iSEE and the Illinois Sustainable
Technology Center (ISTC) applied for and was awarded a grant
from the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC) to buy a Styrofoam
densifier. This machine grinds up the Styrofoam collected
from campus into small beads and extrudes it in a very dense tube.
Local recycling company Community Resources, Inc. (CRI) in Urbana
houses and operates for free the university-owned densifier
in exchange for the proceeds from the sale of densified Styrofoam.
CRI owner Matthew Snyder doesn’t expect to make a profit, but he
says he’s dedicated to doing the right thing for the community.
Taking Up the Collection
With the end steps in place, campus just had to get Styrofoam
from its lab buildings to CRI. iSEE entrusted the development of
a business model to four student interns. Together, they recruited
Styrecycle’s first participants, Loomis Laboratory of Physics and
Edward R. Madigan Laboratory, and provided each building with
a 4-foot-square metal wire collection bin and signage on what can
and cannot be recycled.
When the bins are full, one of the Styrecycle student interns
transports the load on a miniature flatbed trailer attached to a
bicycle to a holding point at the National Soybean Research Center
(NSRC) — where the iSEE office is located. Once a large enough
volume of Styrofoam has been amassed there, CRI will send over a
truck and take it back to their plant to be processed.
The test-case operations in Loomis and Madigan Lab were
resounding successes. Jerry Cook, facilities manager at Loomis,
said he started receiving emails in just two days from researchers
applauding the new recycling option and asking if they could bring
in their Styrofoam from home to recycle.
Meanwhile at Madigan Lab, facilities manager Darren Gentzler
said janitorial staff members have shown they’re really on board
by fishing Styrofoam out of the trash and taking it to the recycling
bin. He expects further behavior improvements as word gets
around the building about the new procedure.
Besides Loomis, Madigan and NSRC, several other bins have
been placed on campus and more are expected to be added this fall.
“We only have one Earth, and we have to take care of it,” Cook
says. “We are a research institution, and we have the opportunity
to show people how it’s done correctly — and show them the
minimal amount of resources you can do it with. This process can
get shared through other communities.”
Ben McCall, iSEE associate director for Campus Sustainability,
acknowledges that Styrofoam is just one small part of the overall
campus waste stream.
“It’s not going to cut in half the material we send to landfill; the
bigger impact of this type of program is really in what it says about
our campus, and what it says to our student body and the people
who work here about the ethos of sustainability,” he says. “We are
really trying everything that we can to reduce our impact on the
environment. This may be a small step, but it’s a step that we can
take as a campus right now.”
Olivia Harris and Elise Snyder write for The Green Observer magazine, a student-run magazine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that reports on the environmental issues students care about in the local region and beyond.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of College Planning & Management.