Dear EarthTalk: How do I find a Styrofoam recycler in my area? My company receives huge sheets of the stuff on a regular basis and it just gets thrown straight into the trash. What can a business do to get this stuff recycled economically and efficiently? -- S.R.M., Mesa, AZ
Known within the packaging industry as expanded polystyrene (EPS) and usually bearing the “#6” recycling symbol, Styrofoam (which is actually the trademark name for Dow Chemical’s product) has long been an environmental bugaboo, as it is contains chemicals known to cause central nervous system damage and other health problems for workers regularly exposed to it. And since it is difficult and expensive to recycle, EPS tends to clog landfills already teeming with toxic garbage.
But EPS has proven to be one of the lightest and least costly forms of packaging material, so the industry has worked hard to make recycling it more cost-effective and convenient. More than 80 packaging manufacturers, polystyrene suppliers and equipment makers joined together in 1991 to form the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers (AFPR). The Maryland-based industry association works to facilitate recycling between EPS manufacturers and the companies that buy from them. It currently boasts of overseeing the recycling of 10-12 percent of the post-consumer EPS packaging produced every year.
Member companies, which provide drop-off services at their facilities, reprocess up to 60 percent of the EPS foam collected and incorporate it directly into new packaging. Some of the material is reformulated and used in a wide variety of durable plastic products. Currently, more than 110 plant locations serve as collection centers which together receive upwards of 50 million pounds of post-consumer EPS packaging each year. AFPR provides a comprehensive list of EPS drop-off locations from coast-to-coast on its website. While companies sending the EPS in for recycling must bear the shipping or drop-off costs, they may save money over paying for disposal fees at the landfill.
One caveat: AFPR does not get involved in the recycling of the foam “peanuts” so often used as packaging filler. Most “pack-and-ship” shops (like UPS stores) will accept used but otherwise clean foam peanuts to reuse in their own shipments. Otherwise, the Plastic Loose Fill Council, another trade group, runs a free web-based database where users can find a local drop-off center by simply punching in their zip code.
Also, food service managers should bear in mind that recycling of soiled food-grade EPS is more difficult and expensive due to issues of bacterial contamination. Most EPS packaging recycling centers will not accept such tainted foam. Many food service companies have followed the lead of McDonald’s and phased-out their use of EPS containers for disposable dishware and to-go orders.
Companies that don’t find it convenient to recycle or otherwise dispose of large amounts of EPS (food-grade or otherwise) might want to consider purchasing one or more StyroMelt machines from UK-based Purex. The technology uses a thermal compaction process to reduce the volume of EPS by up to 95 percent. The resulting solid EPS “briquettes” are dense enough to make for good recycling fodder, and also take up much less room than the foam they started out as if they end up in the landfill.
CONTACTS: Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers, www.epspackaging.org; Plastic Loose Fill Council, HYPERLINK "http://www.loosefillpackaging.com" www.loosefillpackaging.com; Purex Styromelt, HYPERLINK "http://www.styromelt.com" www.styromelt.com.
Dear EarthTalk: Artificial turf has been popular on sports fields for decades for a variety of reasons, but is it also a good environmentally friendly option for residential lawns? -- Sharon Chinchilla, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
The use of artificial turf for residential lawns is a growing trend across America, notably in regions where water supplies have a tough time keeping up with demand. Advocates of artificial turf point out, for example, that a whopping 56,000 gallons of water are applied each year to the average residential lawn.
Statistics also show that the mowing, watering and fertilizing of natural grass contribute as much as two percent to U.S. overall fossil fuel consumption. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, lawn care activities also account for about 10 percent of hazardous air pollution coast-to-coast. And studies on Long Island in New York State have shown that up to 60 percent of the synthetic nitrogen applied to lawns there ends up contaminating local ground water supplies.
But given the choice between real or artificial turf, most environmental advocates still prefer real grass. Besides helping to create the oxygen we breathe through photosynthesis, plants (including grass) are an integral part of any living ecosystem. They filter water and sunlight down into the soil where worms, insects and moisture work in concert to hold the soil firm. And they prevent flooding while providing habitat and nourishment for birds, bees and other wildlife.
In contrast, synthetic turf is made out of petroleum-derived plastic. In cases where fake turf is installed improperly, chemicals from the plastic can seep into the ground below and potentially contaminate groundwater. Some formulations of synthetic turf require infill such as silicon sand or granulated rubber, either of which may contain potentially toxic heavy metals that can leach into the water table below. The granules have also been known to produce a distinctly unpleasant odor at times. And consumers trying to reduce their carbon footprints should keep in mind that manufacturing and shipping artificial turf, like any synthetic product, generates large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
Nonetheless, because of concerns about water usage, some municipalities are trying to encourage homeowners to switch to synthetic turf. Back in 2002 city managers in drought-ridden Las Vegas began offering homeowners rebates of $1 per square foot to replace their thirsty natural grass lawns with synthetic turf. And in July 2007 board members of southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, which serves 18 million people across six counties, initiated a similar program to try to make a dent in outdoor water use in the region, 50 to 70 percent of which is devoted to the watering of residential lawns.
Of course, installing artificial turf isn’t the only way to minimize the environmental impact of one’s yard. Converting grass lawns over to less resource intensive landscaping—known as “xeriscaping”—is also catching on. Drought-tolerant native shrubs, plants and ornamental grasses don’t require large amounts of water, fertilizer or pesticides to survive. Many groundcover plants naturally hold back weeds and contribute to the health of the soil. Even rock gardens are attractive and essentially maintenance-free. Given all the natural alternatives, homeowners need not convert their back yards over to fake turf.
CONTACTS: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s BeWaterWise,at http://www.bewaterwise.com www.bewaterwise.com.