Santa Cruz County, CA – At a warehouse in Watsonville, members of the Surfrider Foundation's Santa Cruz chapter hurl bags of Styrofoam into the back of an empty semi-truck. "What you see is either electronics packaging," said Dustin Macdonald, Vice Chair of the chapter, "there's a couple of steaks that are distributed all over the place, these different steak companies that distribute them out in huge coolers." And that's just the tip of what looks like several Styrofoam icebergs in this warehouse. All of it was collected during two recycling drives around the New Year. It's enough to fill this semi-truck. And until now, they had no choice but to keep it in storage. That's because they couldn't find any place to recycle it.
While many of these items carry the number six recycling symbol, it isn't easy to find a place that will actually recycle Styrofoam, a form of polystyrene. The Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers lists less than 200 recycling locations nationwide. A few cities like Los Angeles and San Jose offer curbside Styrofoam recycling, but no cities offer it on the Central Coast.
Craig Pearson is Superintendent of Waste Disposal at the Landfill in Santa Cruz. The city uses a single stream recycling system that allows customers to throw all their recycling into one can and the items are sorted by machines and by hand, on the back end. He says adding Styrofoam to the mix won't work. "The polystyrene is very brittle, it would break apart its very light," said Pearson, "It wouldn't have the ability to withstand being picked up with the glass, with the papers in the trucks. As soon as you dump it in, those big blocks of foam would break into 1000 little pieces." As workers separate recyclables from non-recyclables off fast moving conveyor belts, Pearson says missing something like a piece of Styrofoam can be costly. "We might not see it, this gets bailed up. It's sticking out of the side of the bale and this is something that the manufacturers don't want. This could get our bales rejected, our whole load rejected and this could cost us money in the long run," he said.
While there is a market for recycled polystyrene, it's not exactly a money making commodity for recyclers because of the equipment and manpower it takes to densify the Styrofoam. The DART Container Corporation manufactures and distributes Styrofoam food service containers around the world. It also recycles Styrofoam, at a loss. Michael Westerfield is West Coast Director of Recycling and Sustainability for DART, "our customers have been crying out, wanting us to take care of the end of life on our products, so we've committed ourselves to recycling." After dropping off a load of Styrofoam fast food containers locally, DART offered to fill its empty truck with the Surfriders' Styrofoam collection. It will take load to the Northern California town of Lodi where the Styrofoam will be compressed into polystyrene beads and then re-used to make crown molding or picture frames. "You know we're excited. We're hoping we can do more events like this in the future," said Westerfield.
This may or may not be the beginning of a new partnership. The dilemma for the Santa Cruz Surfriders is they want to keep Styrofoam out of our landfill, but through recycling drives, they may give consumers the impression that they think it's okay to use these disposable products. And that's definitely not their message. "The end game is to get disposable polystyrene out of the waste stream," said Macdonald, "You know the polystyrene industry, obviously, has their own goals, and we're hoping that we can steer them towards more durable products as opposed to the more disposable products, but that's farther down the line." In the meantime, they haven't ruled out another Styrofoam recycling drive.