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Our foam cups runneth over

The stuff that works well to keep coffee hot proves dauntingly hard to recycle

By Katrina Ballard
Globe Correspondent / November 7, 2010

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Few modern conveniences induce more frustration among environmentalists, and guilt among the rest of us, than the plastic foam coffee cup.

Its insulating qualities — 2 percent polystyrene, 98 percent air — are unparalleled. The same material, twisted into bulky, nearly weightless “peanuts,’’ is perfect for cushioning breakables.

But its unbearable lightness of being (and low scrap value) also makes plastic foam too cumbersome and expensive for most communities to transport to recycling facilities.

“It’s like shipping air,’’ said Robert Beaudoin, superintendent of environmental services for Lexington.

While some environmentalists contend the best solution is to stop making the stuff — McDonald’s put an end to its “clamshell’’ burger boxes 10 years ago — some local communities and businesses are starting to make headway in the battle to keep what is commonly called styrofoam out of landfills and incinerators.

Newton began a trial drop-off program several months ago. Concord collects plastic foam at semiannual swap events, and Framingham is working to reduce the school district’s use of foam trays and food containers.

“You have to make your program so that it’s easy for people to want to do it,’’ said Thomas Daley, Newton’s public works commissioner. “Styrofoam can take up a lot of space, and in Newton, you only have a 64-gallon trash container’’ for the city’s single-stream curbside collections.

Newton began its pilot program after the city’s electronics recycler, CRT Recycling of Brockton, offered to haul away plastic foam at no extra charge, Daley said. Residents can drop off clean, white plastic foam at the Rumford Avenue Resource Recovery Center.

“We’re very pleased with the response. Feedback has been great,’’ said Daley. “We’d like for it to keep going as long as we can.’’

Trademarked “Styrofoam’’ was invented by Otis Ray McIntire, a research chemist for the Dow Chemical Co., which patented the material in 1944. It is widely used for building insulation, but not, Dow emphasizes on its website, for disposable foam products such as coffee cups and packaging.

Though both are made from polystyrene, the white stuff most people think of as styrofoam uses a different manufacturing process.

Several years ago, a company in Framingham, ReFoamIt LLC, started a pick-up service for local businesses and communities looking to recycle plastic foam.

The company sends the material to KWD Warehouse in Rhode Island to be processed into small pellets, which are then recycled into products like picture frames, children’s toys, and car bumpers, said Barbara Sherman, who cofounded ReFoamIt with her husband, Dave.

In 3 1/2 years, ReFoamIt and KWD Warehouse have recycled 1.5 million pounds of plastic foam, no small feat considering how little the material weighs, she said. ReFoamIt hosts free collection days, where the Shermans bring pellet samples to educate the public about recycling the material.

Businesses are the company’s primary sources of plastic foam, but ReFoamIt is also looking to increase its partnerships with area communities, Sherman said.

Framingham’s schools have recently started looking at recycling plastic foam lunch trays, said Brendan Ryan, director of food services for the district. The Framingham High School cafeteria has also stopped providing trays for some food stations that already serve items in wrappers, such as wraps and burgers, he said.

Ryan said that eventually the school system hopes to restore dish rooms that were converted into offices 15 years ago, and switch from plastic foam to reusable lunch trays. He said just one school can use 72,000 lunch trays in a year.

“It’s the national attitude that’s changing. . . It’s all part of sustainability,’’ said Ryan. “Change is not something that comes overnight. We’re taking baby steps.’’

From a technological perspective, recycling plastic foam is nothing new. According to the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers, 69 million pounds were recycled in 2008, and companies such as IKEA, Walmart and Sears have piloted plastic-foam recycling in their stores.

Still, very few communities in Massachusetts recycle the material because it is not worth the cost of transportation, said Brooke Nash, chief of the municipal-waste reduction branch at the state Department of Environmental Protection. Most towns just encourage residents to bring waste like packing peanuts to local shipping services to be reused, she said.

Cambridge tried a program to recycle plastic foam but ended it five years ago after local budget cuts, said Randi Mail, the city’s recycling director.

“The focus on styrofoam really needs to be eliminating it because it’s so hard to handle,’’ she said. “Recycling it doesn’t make sense, even if we had the money for it.’’

Ann Dorfman, interim operations manager for the Massachusetts Recycling Coalition, a Concord-based statewide advocacy organization, said finding an alternative material for polystyrene foam is challenging. Some restaurants have started using biodegradable materials for take-out, she said, but one-time use containers are wasteful in general.

“In our fast-paced, on-the-go world, what are the other options that provide the same benefits without the costs?’’ said Dorfman.

The Environmental Protection Agency does not collect specific data on polystyrene foam, because it is considered a No. 6 plastic — supposedly part of the recycling stream. But a 2008 EPA report on municipal waste generation and recycling in the United States reported that plastic containers and packaging constituted more than 13 million tons of discarded materials, about 13 percent of which was recycled.

Containers and packaging account for about 30 percent of total waste generated, according to the report.

Lexington has begun recycling rigid plastics, such as old recycling bins, but has not considered plastic foam because of the cost, said Beaudoin, the town’s environmental chief.

A few years ago, the town began collecting broken or otherwise unwanted bins because the material has a high value, and they can be recycled for the same cost as just throwing them away.

Concord collects plastic foam at swap events twice a year and sends the material to Framingham for recycling, and the town hopes to find additional ways to recycle the material, said Rod Robison, the town’s environmental services program administrator.

“Styrofoam is one of those areas that has good potential,’’ Robinson said.

The cost of transporting the material to the facility, however, is covered by an admission fee to the swap event, which is usually around $5, he said.

Newton, meanwhile, is considering a publicity campaign to encourage even more plastic foam recycling.

“We need to take a close look at how the pilot goes, but if it makes good financial sense, we’ll absolutely move on it,’’ he said.

“This is really cutting-edge stuff.’’

Globe correspondent Sarah Thomas contributed to this report. Katrina Ballard can be reached at kballard@globe.com.

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