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December 2007

Polystyrene: from pollutant to profit

Polystyrene is fed into the screw compactor at Olympic Wire & Equipment.

Polystyrene, or Styrofoam, as it is commonly referred, has long been the bad guy of the recycling world. Though ideal for protecting and transporting fragile goods without added weight, its non-biodegradable polymers make it a major environmental pollutant that lingers in landfills, clogs waterways and storm drains, and litters land and sea.

Efforts to recycle the lightweight foam have historically been cost-inefficient or, in the case of melting, downright dangerous. Now, with polystyrene bans in place in over 100 United States cities, Los Angeles stands to be the first to make polystyrene recycling a profitable and eco-friendly venture.

The initiative is the result of a convergence of interests, a sound business plan, strong political will, and the use of innovative equipment that is revolutionizing the polystyrene recycling industry.

Two years ago, Olympic Wire and Equipment’s Jim Walker began searching for a solution to mounting surpluses of post-use industrial polystyrene.

“We were getting more and more inquiries from customers with polystyrene issues,” said the CEO of the Newport Beach, California-based equipment and service provider to the waste and recycling industry.

Calls were coming from furniture and electronics distributors that packaging with polystyrene as well as from large companies facing disposal fees of more than $10,000 per month.

“If you look at what’s going on in their bins, it’s almost 80 percent Styrofoam, which is 90 percent air,” said Walker.

David Isenberg from Olympic Wire & Equipment stands beside the stacked recycled polystyrene that is compacted into blocks weighing in at 19 pounds per cubic foot.

Walker’s dissatisfaction with high-maintenance, hydraulically-operated recycling machines and carcinogen-releasing melters available in the United States led him to the European market where polystyrene has been successfully recycled for years. The Screw Compactor manufactured by a Danish company, seemed to be the right fit for his customers.

“The Danes are the world’s largest exporter of fish and everything gets shipped in Styrofoam,” said Walker. “We came across this machine and found that people were happy with it. We started importing it about 9 or 10 months ago and it’s just been going gangbusters.”

Earlier polystyrene recycling initiatives were hindered by the high cost of transporting the light, bulky material. Olympic’s innovative and economic recycling solution eliminates the shipping problem by densifying the foam to a ratio of 50 to 1.

The unique, odor-minimizing, volume reduction process, which can be hand or conveyor-fed, breaks the material up and drops it into an auger. The machine then compacts and extrudes the material into 19 pound per-cubic-foot blocks which can be marketed or shipped. The end product can produce a full overseas container load of 40,000 pounds.

Plagued by an abundance of polystyrene litter, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors joined their colleagues in Oakland, Santa Monica and other municipalities by banning the use of the foam in restaurants and other industries. Meanwhile, the city’s Bureau of Sanitation was contemplating an alternative solution.

“Styrofoam is being recycled in Japan, China and elsewhere,” said Alex Helou, the bureau’s division manager. We thought the city should look into that.”

“The problem with bans is enforcing them,” said David Firestone recycling director of Timbron International, a Bay Area company that transforms recycled polystyrene into green building materials.

Even with local restrictions in place, said Firestone, polystyrene still comes in through shipments originating from outside the banned area. A better solution is to find environmentally friendly ways to use the discarded material.

While California provides economic incentives to recycle certain materials, the lack of state-sponsored incentives for polystyrene has put the burden on private companies and other agencies to develop business models to make the venture worthwhile.

In the case of Los Angeles, Bestway Recycling, a Los Angeles material recovery facility that contracts with the city, will accept and process polystyrene collected through the city’s residential curbside collection program. Bestway will use a screw compacter supplied through Olympic Wire and Equipment to recycle the material. Timbron will then obtain the processed foam to make interior moldings sold commercially at home improvement stores like Lowes and Home Depot.

According to Helou, the plan is part of a 2015 recycling goal set by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to recycle 70 percent of the estimated 10 million tons of trash generated in the city each year. It has been empowered by the changing landscape in the market for recycled products, particularly in the building industry.

“A few years ago, there was no market for polystyrene,” said Helou. “We had to pay $30 a ton to get rid of it. Now, the city will get paid about $25 a ton. For the residents of Los Angeles, the difference will be meaningful.”

Timbron is now developing several more products made from the material.

“We’re always looking for other ways to use recycled polystyrene,” said Firestone. “It’s a good alternative that’s safe for the environment, and it reduces the amount of trees being cut down because it’s a wood substitute.”

Helou hopes that Los Angeles’ surrounding municipalities will piggy back on the city’s initiative.

“The cities around Los Angeles can use the same recovery facility and sell the product on the market,” he said. “All cities can benefit from what Los Angeles has gone through.”

Success of the program hinges on Bestway’s ability to collect a sufficient amount of polystyrene from the city’s 750,000 residential pick-ups to turn a profit. To that end, the city launched a public education initiative on July 1 which included informational billboards and signage on busses and garbage trucks. New, blue bin stickers were also issued that inform residents that they can place polystyrene in the bins along with other recyclable materials.

Bestway’s initial goal is to cover its cost while providing the city with a valuable service. David Cho, the company’s CFO, hopes to be in the green by the second year.

With the price of petroleum, a key ingredient in polystyrene, showing no signs of falling, Cho predicts that recycling will become more attractive.

“In the long run, it will be cheaper to recycle than to make new material,” said Cho.

The city is currently working with Los Angeles County to expand the program, said Helou.

“We’re really excited about it,” he said. “If it works overseas, why not here?”