Week of 8/5/07

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, Plastic Loose Fill Council; Purex Styromelt;

Dear EarthTalk: Aside from the obvious benefits to mankind of reducing poverty, how would promoting more economic equality around the world benefit the environment?
—Steele Shapiro, Seattle, WA

Research has shown that in countries with a wide disparity between rich and poor, environmental protection tends to be a lower priority. The inverse is also true: Countries with greater economic equality assign higher priority to safeguarding their environment.

The main determining factor seems to be that lower income people tend to vote against spending tax dollars on what are deemed costly or discretionary environmental projects. In countries with less disparity between rich and poor, such as throughout Scandinavia, environmental protection is assigned a higher priority and governments have enacted more stringent regulations and policies accordingly.

University of Rochester researchers Laura Marsiliani and Thomas Renstrom reviewed hundreds of academic studies of linkages between economic equality and environmental protection and found plenty of evidence to suggest that "poorer individuals tend to prefer less stringent environmental policy." Previous research also supports their hypothesis that greater income inequality causes lower environmental taxes, regulation and spending around the world.

On a related front, a team of McGill University researchers uncovered a connection between growing economic inequality and an increase in the number of plant and animal species threatened with extinction. Dr. Greg Mikkelson of McGill’s School of Environment led the study, which looked at income inequality and biodiversity loss on two different scales: among 45 countries worldwide; and among 45 U.S. states. The researchers found that the same general trend is evident in both cases: Societies with more unequal distribution of income experience greater losses of biodiversity.

While there is often a trade-off between economic growth and environmental quality, says Mikkelson, his study suggests that there is also synergy between removing or reducing poverty and greater conservation of biological diversity. If the U.S. were to achieve levels of income parity comparable, say, to Sweden, some 44 percent fewer plant and animal species in the U.S. would be in danger of extinction. "Our study," adds Mikkelson, "suggests that if we can learn to share economic resources more fairly with fellow members of our own species, it may help us to share ecological resources more fairly with other species."

One group working to help the environment by bridging the economic equality gap is the Poverty Reduction and Environmental Management (PREM) program at the Institute for Environmental Studies at Holland’s Vrije Universiteit. Formulated by Dr. Pieter van Beukering and Kim van der Leeuw, the program has lined up researchers in 16 developing nations to develop case studies showing how sustainability-oriented natural resource management can lead to economic development for poorer people. The researchers hope that their work in the field will help show policymakers the way toward enlightened regulatory practices that encourage both economic equality and environmental protection.

CONTACTS: Inequality, Environmental Protection and Growth, "More Inequality Means Less Biodiversity", McGill Reporter, PREM Program