The Sustainable Campus (Trends and Innovations)

Recycling Styrofoam

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.

Lessons Learned

“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.

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