We all know Styrofoam…..it’s that hard foam used to insulate things…the inside of our walls and our hot cups for coffee and trays for microwavable food are the most common uses. Styrofoam is a trade name for a petroleum-based plastic named polystyrene. Like Kleenex for facial tissues, Coke for carbonated soft drinks and Xerox for copiers, Styrofoam is the commonly used name, no matter who makes the product.
Like other petroleum based products, Styrofoam causes problems in our environment in all stages: the production, use and disposal. Manufacturing the base chemical polystyrene has many toxic effects on workers, including gastrointestinal effects and irritation of the skin, eyes, and upper respiratory tract. Chronic exposure affects the central nervous system showing symptoms such as depression, headache, fatigue, and weakness, and can cause minor effects on kidney function and blood. Styrene is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA and by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Then, we use much of it to hold food. When the Styrofoam is warm, chemicals leach out of the food container into the food. This also can result in a number of health risks.
Finally, we toss the container into the trash. Currently, McMinnville has no system to recycle Styrofoam, so it goes to the landfill. Not only does it take up about 25-30% of all landfills, it does not break down, essentially maintaining that mountain of trash for generations or centuries.
Portland has restricted the use of Styrofoam but it obviously is heavily used elsewhere within the metropolitan area. Agilyx, a polystyrene recycling plant in Tigard has developed and is now installing the technology to process waste polystyrene such as packing Styrofoam and other containers. The process will reduce it to its chemical elements so that it can be sold to manufacturers and be used repeatedly.
Recycling polystyrene currently is economically feasible. The process demonstrated to the Zero Waste McMinnville team at the Agilyx facility involves chopping the waste material, cleaning it, drying it, and extruding it with heat to form pellets, which are used in manufacturing of new objects.
Zero Waste McMinnville volunteers are spearheading efforts to find ways to collect polystyrene waste and facilitate local use of a densifier, which presses the material into blocks that then can be shipped to a recycling facility such as Agilyx. Efforts are being made to identify sources for grant money and submit an application for the needed equipment.
Zero Waste McMinnville volunteers are interviewing local merchants to establish the amounts of Styrofoam waste generated and possible collection and storage sites. Our goal is to reduce the amount of polystyrene waste taken to the landfill by 90% by 2024. This means businesses and households will need to take responsibility and take advantage of the developing recycling technology resources.
Alternatives, such as recycled paper, bamboo and corn plastics, are biodegradable when composted and would be diverted from the landfill. Recyclables can be picked up curbside at your homes and businesses. Compostables can be collected as well and break down to add nutrients back into the soil.