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Packaging Post-Styrofoam: What’s Possible?

June 18, 2013

Styrofoam®, or expanded polystyrene (EPS), was a life-saver when invented by Dow Chemical Co. during the Second World War. (The brand Styrofoam® is a trademark of Dow, though EPS is commonly referred to as Styrofoam.) We now find the puffy stuff everywhere – as the primary fillers of shipping packages, as our food containers and beer coolers. The EPA estimates that Americans alone throw away 25 billion Styrofoam cups each year. In addition to deriving from non-renewable fossil fuel stock, EPS is cost-prohibitive to recycle, dangerous to incinerate, and nowhere near biodegradable. The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers styrene, the base of any EPS product, a “possible carcinogen.”

But options increasingly exist for consumers and businesses looking to limit or go beyond EPS packaging use. Here are some products, programs, and creative options to help you use the material wisely, or not at all:

 

Bio-degradable options

  • We recommend re-using any packaging filler as much as possible. But if you need to buy new packaging peanuts, consider biodegradable ones made of renewable materials like corn starch or wheat. When composted, these will biodegrade without taking up landfill space. (It’s best to check with your local commercial composting business to ensure they can accept them.) However, a material’s biodegradability does not prevent that material from having harmful environmental impacts over the course of its lifetime. For example, cultivating corn uses more nitrogen fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides than any other industrial crop. Also, purchasers may have ethical or political concerns over using foodcrops and land to produce nonedible and disposable materials.

    Ecovative Design builds packaging from scratch, out of mycelium

  • Consider fungi. Ecovative Design, an innovative design company in New York, grows biodegradable packaging materials out of fungi. The company harnesses the magical power of mycelium, fungi’s threadlike communication network, to grow in, around, and through organic substrate. According to the company’s website, mycelium “act like a natural, self-assembling glue” to bind together organic substrate into a cohesive material. Ecovative’s packaging solution represents a radical departure from typical bio-plastics that use food crops as feedstock. Instead of using valuable food resources, Ecovative re-uses agricultural waste. Also, Ecovative’s packaging doesn’t use fossil-fuel based additives like other biodegradable plastics do. The company creates packaging that is non-toxic, as water-resistant as Styrofoam, breaks down within 180 days, and can be custom-molded to fit different packaging shapes. For more on Ecovative’s potential, check out this EarthTimes piece and a recent profile on the company’s co-founders in the New Yorker.
  • Dell Computers is one company pushing the packaging frontier. In addition to using fungi-based packaging, Dell uses other fast-growing organic materials for packaging, like bamboo.

 

Re-use What’s Out There

  • Consumers can re-use the reams of EPS (or other packaging materials) in circulation to avoid sending the stuff to landfill purgatory. Households can re-use EPS in shipping packages or put the peanuts to creative use around the house. Consumers can also tap into recycling networks like the Free Cycle Network to find places to efficiently swap EPS packaging.
  • A number of Recycling Networks serve manufacturers and businesses. In King Country, WA, for example, the Industrial Materials Exchange Network(IMEX) facilitates trading of surplus packaging materials along with other potential waste.
  • For both businesses and consumers, shipping and recycling centers are good places to look when trying to get rid of or procure packaging materials. The Plastic Loose Fill Council provides a searchable database and “Peanut Hotline” to help find places for convenient drop-off or pick-up of foam peanuts. A few Puget Sound companies, for example, accept unwanted EPS. Styro Recycle, in Renton, “accept any amount, large or small,” according to their website. And EcoFoam Recyclers, in Woodinville, recycles EPS along with other non-biodegradable plastics. Many shipping companies, like UPS, will also accept excess packaging materials to re-use. If you’re looking to procure loose fill packaging materials, recycling centers like Earth Works in Spokane, WA, are good places to look for biodegradable, recyclable, or just creative packaging options.
  • Innovative businesses are re-using incoming packaging to avoid sending goods to a recycling center or paying to dispose of them. Corru-Shred is a company that specializes in helping other businesses efficiently shred and re-use cardboard. They sell a trademarked shredding machine, the Corru-ShredderTM, which produces Corru-Fill®, a recycled corrugated packaging material.

 

Re-Design Your Packaging / Custom Options

  • Using custom-molded recyclable packaging options may save businesses costs in the long run. UFP Technologies, for example, designs and manufactures custom-fit packaging out of 100% recycled molded pulp and fiber material. Using such packaging offers the opportunity to trim the size, weight, and cost of your packaging or shipping materials. However, using recyclable packaging does not necessarily correlate with less environmental impact. A 2004 lifecycle study performed by the Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality found that void fill e-commerce packaging made from 100% recycled molded pulp required more fossil fuel energy inputs than EPS packaging. According to the study, molded pulp production requires large amounts of natural gas to dry the product.
  • Industries of certain products or scale may want to look into implementing a reusable packaging system. Reusable packaging systems consider the entire supply chain of a product and involve much more than recycling cardboard or EPS materials. These systems rely on reusable pal­lets, racks, bulk con­tain­ers, hand-held con­tain­ers and dun­nage to move prod­uct effi­ciently and safely through­out the sup­ply chain. Reusable pack­ag­ing offers a wide range of eco­nomic, social and envi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits over single-use pack­ag­ing at all lev­els of the sup­ply chain. Examples of industries using reusable packaging are: automotive, beverage, pharmaceuticals, and electronics.

 

Some resources can help us evolve past EPS use (www.techchee.com)

Additional Resources for Consumers

  • A National Geographic brief on “How to Get Rid of Styrofoam,” mostly for concerned consumers.
  • A Sierra Club piece on the health concerns of EPS and some creative alternatives.
  • Institute for Local Self-Reliance – Provides innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development.
  • Craigslist – Provides a local classifieds and forums for more than 500 cities in over 50 countries worldwide. You can find just about anything.
  • Grassroots Recycling Network – A national network of waste reduction activists and recycling professionals.
  • Earth911 – Assists consumers in finding local recycling information through an updated national recycling directory.

 

Additional Resources for Businesses

  • Sustainable Packaging Checklist – Working with the Cascadia Packaging Group, PPRC created this list to help company’s maximize the efficiency of their packaging systems.
  • Oregon DEQ’s Waste Prevention Resource on Packaging – Offers best practices, case studies, and evaluation tools to help prevent packaging waste.
  • King County’s ‘What Do I Do With …?’ Service – Provides a searchable list of service providers that accept EPS, or any other junk you’re curious about trying to safely dispose of.
  • Craigslist – Provides a local classifieds and forums for more than 500 cities in over 50 countries worldwide. You can find just about anything.
  • Grassroots Recycling Network – A national network of waste reduction activists and recycling professionals.
  • Green Packaging Inc.- Provides environmentally-friendly packaging materials for industry.
  • The Freecycle Network – Mission is to build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources & eases the burden on our landfills while enabling our members to benefit from the strength of a larger community.
  • Waste360 – Waste management, recycling and composting industry news and analysis, online training and education, industry best practices, and other event information.

 

– By Cyrus Philbrick

Communications Manager

 

* EDITOR’S NOTE : This post was updated on 3:20 PM, 06/19/13, to correct the following mistakes:

1. The original post incorrectly stated that EPS takes up about one third of the volume of U.S. landfills. We could not find evidence to support this claim. The percentage is likely much lower.

2. The original post failed to distinguish the difference between biodegradable peanuts degrading in landfills as compared to compost. Degrading in landfills produces methane without the benefit of producing usable soil amendment. We edited the post to clearly state that composting cornstarch peanuts is a better option than putting them in landfill.

3. The original post incorrectly implied that the recyclability of packaging was always good. Some studies suggest that using recycled or recyclable packaging does not guarantee that the packaging causes less environmental impact than non-recyclable packaging over the course of its lifetime. The lifecycle study by the Oregon DEQ (above), for example, found that, for a certain type of packaging, recycled molded pulp required more fossil fuel to produce than EPS.

4. We added the Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality as an Additional Resource.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE II: This post was updated at 12:35pm, 06/21/13 to mention the following resources:

1. ECO Foam Recyclers

2. King County’s ‘What Do I Do With …’ service

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