By Bill Sullivan
After the gifts have been opened and the holidays are gone, Frisco residents annually are left with a nagging question:
What do you do with the Styrofoam?
One solution: If you can’t completely solve a problem, minimize it.
That’s what is happening at Frisco Environmental Services, where Environmental Education Coordinator Jeremy Starritt came up with a creative way to make the best of a bad situation.
The department received an $88,850 grant from the North Central Texas Council of Governments for the purchase of a Styrofoam densifier. Instead of dealing with mountains of Styrofoam that weigh virtually nothing, Frisco now can cut the ubiquitous packing material down to size (Styrofoam is about 95 percent air) with a process that accomplishes three goals:
- An economically sensible amount of Styrofoam can be loaded on to trucks headed to a recycling plant.
- By recycling, there will be less need to produce more Styrofoam.
- The amount of essentially non-biodegradable material headed out to the landfill will be reduced.
“It’s very cool, very futuristic,” Environmental Services Manager Pippa Couvillion says, adding that Frisco is the only city in the area to own such equipment. “We’re thinking ahead.”
She credits Starritt with this particularly forward-looking bit of thinking: He’s the one who wrote the grant proposal that brought in the revenues to pay for the purchase.
“Without condensing it, what you have is loose product sitting in bags,” he explains. “The closest place to us that produces Styrofoam is out in East Texas on the Louisiana border. For them to come and get a truckload of loose product which weighs 75 pounds total is not a good use of their time.”
Enter the new equipment, which went into operation in September. Starritt says it creates a 600-to-1 densification rate, turning that 75 pound load of polystyrene foam into something considerably more substantial.
Through mid-December, Environmental Services had condensed 30 yards of loose material into two four-foot high pallets. (Only Styrofoam used for packing large objects such as TVs or computer equipment is accepted; items such as egg cartons and food trays are not eligible for the program.)
“Now, when we fill a truck, it’s literally tons and ton and tons of Styrofoam, where it really is worth both the time and the money for them to get it. We’re hoping it will actually be a money-making possibility there.”
While making a profit would be a nice bonus, the positive impact on the environment is a sure thing. Once Styrofoam is created, it pretty much is what it is. About three million tons of polystyrene foam — Styrofoam actually is a brand made by Dow Chemical — is produced every year, most of it ending up in landfills, where it is virtually immortal.
If you are in the Styrofoam business, however, re-using the product is something of a no-brainer.
“It’s one of the easiest things to recycle,” Starritt says. “It’s even easier than plastic, because you don’t have to melt it down. They basically just have to shape it and harden it again, and it becomes whatever it is they want it to be.
“It’s basically a complete loop, with almost zero loss in product. With plastic, paper and everything else, you have up to 10, 15 percent reduction recycling every time. With Styrofoam it’s like a one percent loss.”
Now, those piles of light-as-air Styrofoam at Frisco Environmental Services will be small, denser, and ready to head off to the recycler. It’s a solution in line with the department’s mission to combine good stewardship with good economic sense.
“Everything we do here is not only to conserve the product, but also to develop a market for the product, too,” Couvillion says. “We could collect stuff all day long. We need the ability to make it into something of value before anyone will come and get it.”
Reducing a big environmental problem will help accomplish just that.