By Elise Snyder
Expanded polystyrene aka Styrofoam: It’s ideal for keeping your cup of coffee hot or your DNA samples cold, but once it’s usefulness has run out, Styrofoam often ends up in the trash and, eventually, a landfill. This was the case for Styrofoam at the University of Illinois until the spring of 2016 when the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) launched a new, student-run program — Styrecycle. As suggested by the name, the goal of this program was to start recycling the Styrofoam that UIUC had previously been throwing away.
First, a little background. Expanded polystyrene, more commonly known as Styrofoam, is essentially a puffed up form of plastic. It is full of air which makes it a great insulator, and it is used as packing material to ship all sorts of items, including the delicate lab equipment and bottles of chemicals used en masse in UIUC’s labs. Styrofoam can be recycled, however, it is extremely lightweight which makes it uneconomical to ship, which is why it often ends up in the trash. This is where a machine called a Styrofoam Densifier comes in. A densifier grinds up Styrofoam and spits it out in a compacted form that takes up far less volume and makes it more cost effective to ship.
Until the launch of Styrecycle, the Champaign-Urbana area did not have a Styrofoam densifier, but in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Madison and with grants from the EPA and the Student Sustainability Committee UIUC was able to purchase one of these expensive machines. UIUC enlisted local recycling company CRI to house and operate their densifier, and in return CRI receives the profits from selling the densified Styrofoam.
The Styrecycle pilot program began last spring with two buildings: Loomis Laboratory of Physics and Edward R. Madigan Laboratory, which were equipped with four-foot square wire cages to collect Styrofoam. According to Marco and Aaron, two of the Styrecycle interns, many requests have been made to join Styrecycle, and since its founding the program has broadened to include smaller collecting drums in Turner Hall, the Institute for Genomic Biology, the National Soybean Research Center, and the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. The program is currently in the midst of another expansion to include new collecting bins in Roger Adams Laboratory and the Chemical and Life Sciences Laboratory by October 15th, and smaller drums in McKinley, Allen Hall, and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications by November 15th.
In total Styrecycle now has five student interns who are responsible for the program’s operation — Aaron Gadtula, Marco Tjioe, Maria Liseth Velasco Delgado, Colin Tirakian, And Raymond B. Bizot — and it has also expanded to include an RSO and non-intern volunteers. According to Aaron, a junior in National Resources and Environmental Science, “The response and the feedback we have been getting for Styrecycle has been very positive. It makes everything that we do well worth the effort.”
To learn more about the founding and logistics of Styrecycle, check out this article (a collaboration between the Green Observer and the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment) at the GO website.