A waste recycling partnership between the City of Galveston and the University of Texas Medical Branch is paying off big by making Styrofoam small.
Styrofoam, or expanded polystyrene foam, is 95 percent air and until recently could not be efficiently reduced and recycled.
In the partnership's first year, however, UTMB recycled the equivalent of 50 semi-truck trailers filled with Styrofoam, said Paul Booth, Galveston's acting environmental services superintendent. A new melting process reduced the waste to about half a truckload, all of it recyclable.
"Just over a year ago," Booth said, "this material was going into landfills."
As Galveston's largest employer, UTMB accounts for about half of the 337,500 cubic feet of Styrofoam that has been recycled since the partnership began in 2011. Residents and businesses in Galveston recycled the rest.
"This means that with all of the material collected thus far, we could have a pile of Styrofoam approximately 10 feet wide and 9 feet high that would wrap all the way around the UTMB campus," Booth said.
Polystyrene foam is a popular packaging material but it resisted recycling or even common disposal methods. Burning it releases harmful fumes. Crushing it makes it splinter. Dumping it wastes landfill space. To make matters worse, scientists say the stuff will take centuries to decompose.
Things changed a few years ago in the recycling industry with the introduction of a method and machine to safely melt and "densify" polystyrene foam. In 2011, Galveston's Public Works Department bought one of the first commercially available polystyrene densifiers. The venture made economic sense because UTMB could supply large amounts of foam waste. Manufacturers buy densified foam to make textiles and plastic containers.
"We joined the city because we knew it would help us solve our own problem with Styrofoam. We also wanted to be sure our waste products were being handled properly and recycled," said Neal Cooper, utility operations and sustainability manager with UTMB's Business Operations and Facilities.
For its part, UTMB collects and ships polystyrene waste once a week to Galveston's Recycling Center, 702 61st St. Cooper said most of the waste is packing material from shipping boxes.
"We are very fortunate and pleased to be working with UTMB because UTMB handles a large amount of Styrofoam and is committed to disposing of it properly," Booth said.
Densifier machines are simple to operate. A technician puts waste material in the machine's hopper. Blades shred the foam and the machine heats it to 300 degrees. Within seconds, the machine pushes out a tube of putty-like condensed plastic. Workers coil the substance like rope and let it harden for shipment.
UTMB is noted for the recycling programs it has developed in recent years. The university, for example, now recycles 34 percent of its waste that otherwise would go to a landfill, up from 22 percent in 2010, Cooper said.
In May, UTMB placed in the Top 10 of recycling programs at U.S. colleges and universities. The university ranked No. 7 in paper recycling and No. 9 in cardboard recycling among 605 institutions evaluated by Recyclemania Inc., a non-profit organization that promotes recycling.
Recycling tips for UTMB community:
• Remove Styrofoam packing from shipping boxes before discarding it. Doing so eliminates the need to separate it from the cardboard at UTMB's Recycling Center.
• Send used ink-jet cartridges through campus mail to Route 113. Send used toner cartridges in UTMB's blue recycling bags.
• Send confidential papers for disposal in the locked green totes available from Materials Management. The paper is shredded at the Recycling Center before it leaves the campus.
• Questions? Call ext. 72958 or ext. 72959.
For Galveston residents:
• City of Galveston Recycling Center, 702 61st St., open daily except Sunday, 8 a.m.-4:45 p.m., 409-741-1446