Thursday, October 8, 2009

When Recycling Options Are Unclear

**please note this is an extremely lengthy post with oodles of information and links; feel free to bookmark to re-read later**

At our most recent Bennetts Brook Green Group meeting, Melissa (our very own MelissaBBGG!) commented on Styrofoam and our local area’s ability or inability to recycle it, despite it being stamped with a big 6. Apparently this type of “plastic” is seemingly non-recyclable in most markets and we all began to wonder ‘then why is it stamped with a recycling symbol?’

First I will share what Melissa wrote in our monthly newsletter and then more on the research that I did upon reading about this confusing issue.

The lowdown on EPS: A mini-rant

OK, you call it Styrofoam+, and so do I, but what I'm really talking about here is EPS, or expanded polystyrene -- the foamy stuff various companies use to pack products for shipping and send your takeout food home in. The short version of what I have to say is, you should not include it with your recyclables anymore, if you have been up to now.

All this past summer, our neighborhood recycling runs to the drop-off included plastics 3 through 7, which the drop-off's web page said was what they took. That, as far as I could see, included 6 -- which, among other items, includes EPS…the drop-off's site didn't specifically exclude we thought we were doing the right thing. And let me be clear here: I'm still thrilled about all the other 3-7 stuff that didn't go to a landfill!

At some point, someone made a comment about how no one really takes 6 EPS, so I started to feel some doubt about the recycling drop-off project. This fortunately happened about the time [our] transfer station began to collect 3-7 plastics. But then I wondered if [ours would] take the EPS.

To get some answers, I got in touch with Laurie Sabol from the Recycling Committee. She says she would recommend not including 6 EPS in recycling. The main reason: there's not much of a market for products made with reclaimed EPS, so most recycling companies don't take it. And if you just go ahead and throw it in, recycling companies have to spend a lot of time picking through their piles to remove it, which I'm guessing will lead to higher fees for users down the road, among other possibilities.

[Another BBGG member] reports after his latest run to the transfer station that the employee he spoke with there says EPS is "not considered a plastic," and it's not recycled there, although the town says it's recycling plastics 1-7 (there are other products marked 6 that, apparently, many recyclers accept). [He] suggested that the 6 marking on the bottom of many EPS pieces might be confusing people, and the employee agreed that perhaps some additional signs might help to clarify what should and should not go into the bin.

Personally, I am frustrated with a capital RRRRR. If EPS can't practically be recycled, I feel that manufacturers' practice of marking it recyclable just adds to consumers' confusion. I know it actually can be recycled theoretically, but that's cold comfort when it's piling up in my house.

I've been on a mission to find ways to reuse the restaurant curbside pickup containers I accumulated over the summer but the real message here, for me, anyway, is that it's time to work harder on reducing use of EPS, at least until recycling it becomes more of a practical reality. I'm aiming to start by writing to places that use EPS and leaning on them to switch to a better choice for containers. And I'll definitely be trying to cook at home more often.

If you're wondering what alternatives you have for the stuff you're stuck with right now, Laurie Sabol has a few suggestions. She notes that packing peanuts, as well as bubble wrap and air bags, are appreciated by UPS stores and antique stores.

Also, the following businesses [Massachusetts only] will take some forms of 6 EPS. Contact one for specifics on what they do and don't allow, and how to get it to them:
• Conigliaro Industries, Inc. 508-872-9668 in Framingham
• FP International 508-832-5369 in Auburn
• Insulation Technology, Inc. 508-697-6926 in Bridgewater
• Foam Concepts, 508-278-7255 in Uxbridge
• Polyfoam Corporation 508-234-6323 in Northbridge
• Storopack, Inc. 508-366-1249 in WestboroughFor another option, you can send EPS to a mail-back location.

For more information, visit

WHEW! I was floored that there was such little information provided to consumers and that most people would see the little 6 and think they were doing right by placing the EPS in a bin. Sadly when the recycling joint picks it out I am quite sure it gets thrown in the trash.

While doing research on where or how to recycle or reuse this EPS, I came across the following website:

Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers

They indicated they have drop off locations as well as a mail back option. I was so excited until further reading indicated they do not take food containers, they essentially only take the stuff used to pack up items for shipping (what is around a computer when you open the box for example).

At least it was a start.

They also offer the Peanut Hotline at 1-800-828-2214 which indicates locations around a five digit zip code who accept packing peanuts for drop off. There were three in my area which was encouraging. Since I have so many products being shipped to me these days, this is something that has been on my mind a lot lately.

The Peanut Hotline refers to the American Plastics Council (1-800-243-5790) at the end of their message as a good resource for more information and they are correct. Their site shares a plethora of plastics information.

I still had not discovered anything I could do with those old food containers though and the bottom line is pretty much every website I went to for information said the same thing: there is low scrap value so most places will not recycle it and due to food “contamination” it can not be sent back.

So what are some things we can do to reuse or at least further extend the lifecycle of this material?

1. If you know you are not the type to finish a meal in the restaurant and tend to bring it home, bring your own reusable container with you when you go out. The server does not have to take it back to put it in a container and these days they tend to bring the container right out to the consumer to do anyway so why not cut out the “middle man”?

2. Thoroughly wash and store old clam-shell polystyrene for this very purpose.

3. Use them for dry storage. Those small ones are great in the bathroom for things like cotton balls or other small, under the sink type items.

4. Make something out of it. Arts and crafts can be a great fall back option -- holiday decorations, numbers for the outside of your house, sculpture art, fabric covered push-pin boards -- the opportunities are only as limitless as the imagination!

In addition, I strongly urge everyone to start writing letters, making phone calls, writing emails, etc to any location that continues to use the polystyrene containers for food take out and request they stop doing so in order for this issue to no longer be an issue. Also, check in with your local recycling centers to see if this type of product is taken.

What have you done with your old EPS?

+ Styrofoam is a trademark of Dow Chemical Company


ecokaren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ecokaren said...

My recycling company DOES NOT take anything other than #1 and #2. So I recycle peanuts when I pack things to be shipped. If I have any other styrofoams lying around, like from buying produce at the supermarket (I don't understand why they pack healthy things like fruits and veggies in these), I reuse them as much as possible. Thankfully, I don't have that much styrofoam accumulating in my house.