Adventures of a Summer Intern: Deciphering StyroFest

StyroFest - styrofoam recycling event for Kirkland residentsSTYROFEST… I have been hearing about this colossal event since I started with the City of Kirkland Solid Waste team in June. But not until I experienced the organized chaos myself, did I really understand. The sheer volume of Styrofoam collected over only eight hours was astonishing. The thing that surprised me most about this event was not the throngs of people rushing to the Kirkland Public Works Maintenance Center to recycle their Styrofoam, but instead the massive amount of Styrofoam that most people brought.

Every time a load of Styrofoam was pried out of what I can only assume was a caravan of clown cars I couldn’t help but think, “Where does all of this come from?”

By volume, packaging material seemed by far the greatest, not just for furniture and electronics, but also wine and fresh food. But the number of takeout containers or disposable cups and dishware was just as astounding.

40-cubic-yard dumpster three quarters filled after only three hours.After five hours of wrestling bags and bags of Styrofoam into the 40-yard container, I was left feeling confused:

  1. I didn’t know anything about Styrofoam.
  2. I was unsure of how it was recycled.
  3. I couldn’t help but feel discouraged. Even though I watched 80+ cubic yards of Styrofoam be diverted from the landfill, I felt like more could be done to limit the use of this squeaky-sounding substance altogether.

So, in the interest of making myself feel better, I did some research.

Styrofoam is EPS is Plastic

  1. Styrofoam is a brand name, like Kleenex. Expanded polystyrene (EPS) and expanded polyethylene (EPE) are the materials, like tissues.
  2. EPS is made from petroleum.
  3. EPS is a great insulator.
  4. Extruded polystyrene EPS can be recycled by going through a process called extrusion. Basically, the material is put through a big machine that melts it and pressurizes it then pushes it out. The result is something that looks like this:
  5. Extruded polystyrene can be used to make plastic products like picture frames, plastic lawn furniture or toys.

That just leaves my final conundrum: how do we use less Styrofoam?

Last year, before school started, I bought a TV so I didn’t have to mooch off a friend every Sunday to watch football. My new TV was surrounded by Styrofoam- lots and lots of Styrofoam. I could have rejected the TV, taken it back and written an angry email to Panasonic demanding that they stop using Styrofoam, but I didn’t.

I did keep the packaging though. I use it to safely store and transport the TV every time I move.

My point is, expanded polystyrene is being used by manufacturers and suppliers because it keeps items safe. And there are some things that we are going to buy regardless of packaging. But I do think that it’s important to be aware of the packaging used to ship the items we buy and do what we can to reduce our consumption of EPS or products that require EPS for shipping.

Here’s what I do to use less Styrofoam:

  1. Buy used. Used furniture or other items from places like Goodwill, Value Village or Craigslist don’t come packed in Styrofoam like new items do.
  2. Visit restaurants that have compostable takeout containers. Or if your favorite restaurant still uses Styrofoam, bring your own leftovers container. It’s more airtight anyway!
  3. When possible, try to avoid purchasing bulky, fragile or perishable items online that must be packaged and shipped to you.

Bagged styrofoam for recycling collected in June 2015These ideas, as well as Styrofest, won’t solve the worlds Styrofoam dilemma. But they will help reduce the amount consumed until a more environmentally friendly alternative is introduced.