Expanded Polystyrene foam (EPS), better known under its trade name, Styrofoam, is the poster child for environmental wrongs and humankind’s indelible impact on the planet.  It’s seemingly endless life (about 500 years for 1 cup), and the associated health and environmental concerns related to its production have led many cities and countries to ban EPS foam containers outright.  

Though many companies have moved away from EPS in lieu of more degradable options, EPS still has a firm foothold in certain segments where economical alternatives have not yet been developed, such as packaging and construction.   One such place that has hitherto received little attention is in research labs where the Styrofoam is used to safely transport supplies.  Preliminary studies at Harvard Medical School revealed that on average, a lab receives 5-6 EPS coolers a week with their regular shipments of biological supplies.  Multiply that by the number of labs on the HMS campus alone (roughly 260) and the numbers quickly add up.  In addition to the foam coolers, labs often receive packing peanuts and tube racks made of EPS to add to the volume.  Up until recently, there was no place for these to go except the landfill. 

With the rollout of HMS’s campus-wide expanded polystyrene recycling for research laboratories, the leftover containers are now being reclaimed and melted down into new products such as picture frames and architectural moulding.  Just the pilot period of the program for the HIM/NRB and later the Warren Alpert buildings diverted over 3,000 cubic feet in about 2 months time. With such massive amounts of EPS being generated and received, why aren’t more places instituting EPS recycling programs? 

The answer lies in three segments: economic and financial feasibility, specialized equipment, and storage space.   EPS is made by blowing air or gas into polystyrene during manufacturing.  The result is a very light and highly insulating product that is great for shipping, packaging, and maintaining desired temperatures for products. However, when unaccompanied by a solid/heavier product, shipping Styrofoam is basically equivalent to shipping air, which quickly becomes very expensive.  Additionally, the amount of plastic recoverable is low, only about 5% of the container is actual plastic, and the cost to retrieve the containers and process them quickly becomes impractical.  In addition to high shipping costs and low recoverability, the extrusion and processing of EPS into reusable polystyrene requires specialized equipment.  Most recycling facilities lack the funds and space for both the equipment and the loads of EPS packaging needed to make anything substantial out of them.   In order to melt enough EPS into usable pellets, the facility must store it in large quantities until enough is saved for melting.

“When exploring EPS recycling options at The Medical School, we looked into buying the equipment, bringing in EPS-specific recycling vendors, and expanding the cooler take-back program, but none of those options fully addressed the issue in a comprehensive or cost-effective way.” said Alicia Murchie, Longwood Sustainability Manager, who first proposed the idea of EPS recycling in labs.  

In conversations with HMS’ current recycling vendor, Save That Stuff, Murchie mentioned the School’s interest in EPS recycling, and they, ever interested in expanding their recycling reach, offered to explore the idea. 

Save that Stuff quickly identified recycling options and now collects HMS’ EPS waste alongside the mixed recycling in separate bags.  The EPS containers are crushed in the compactor to reduce the space they take up and shipped with the regular recycling to make transport more cost effective.  They have been packing a semi truck with the EPS waste for a few months and have offered to purchase the equipment for processing the material before sending it off as raw material to manufacturers, giving it a second life. 

Custodial concerns have been addressed by requesting lab members to flatten cardboard boxes and separate materials, thus somewhat alleviating added time burdens to crews from the collection of more material.  The aid of researchers has been important to allow custodial enough time to perform normal duties and allow EPS recycling to take off on campus.  The resounding response has been positive, and as a culmination of their special efforts to include EPS recycling in the labs, the HMS Custodial team won the 2012 Green Carpet Team Award for best waste reduction project. 

Starting in June, the program will officially go from pilot phase to campus-wide common practice. The School for Public Health will soon be taking up the mantle, and Murchie hopes to extend the practice to the hospitals and affiliates of the greater Longwood Medical Area in due time.