For the past year, a troop of dedicated volunteers and I have been running an island-wide foam recycling program. We have been collecting Expanded Polystyrene, Extruded Polystyrene, packing peanuts, Polyethylene, urethane foam, Insta-pak foam, clear bubble wrap and clear plastic. Most of the collected material goes to StyroRecycle in Kent. The urethane foam and Insta-pak go to different vendors, also in Kent. Some polystyrene goes to Agylix, in Portland, Ore.
The waste from these products has become a worldwide pollution problem. If placed in landfills or not properly processed, polystyrene is considered a non-biodegradable pollutant, taking over 500 years to decompose. Our landfills, our roadsides and our oceans are filling up with these products. Even as a kid, I could see that it took more effort than just taking out the trash to be sure that I wasn’t polluting. So, it has been my habit to take polystyrene waste to the recycler. For most people, this is not very convenient, so I knew that many islanders end up throwing these materials away. I decided to test the waters and offer up a service to see if we could pull more polystyrene and plastic out of our waste stream.
I arranged to borrow a moving truck from John L. Scott Realty and advertised by placing a few pieces of sheet foam marked with the date, time and location at Minglement, Cafe Luna and The Burton Coffee Stand. With permission, I set up at the old Kimmco building in the center of town. I figured a few people would show up.
I didn’t anticipate the overwhelming response. In only a few short hours, I filled the truck to beyond capacity and had to turn people away. One of those people was Kimberly Norris-Kyles, the former warehouse manager at the Vashon Food Bank. In short order, we hatched a plan: For future collections, I could use the food bank distribution truck. It turns out that StyroRecycle is just around the corner from Northwest Harvest (so we can deliver the foam using recycling program volunteer drivers and pick up the Food Bank food in one trip: A true win-win). I was also able to forge a partnership with Zero Waste Vashon. Their encouragement and assistance in administering this program have ensured its success this year and into the future. Thus, our “First Sunday of the Month” plastic foam collection program began.
Polystyrene is recycled in two different ways: mechanically and chemically. Companies like StyroRecycle take the polystyrene, grind and densify it and sell this new raw material to manufacturers of hard plastic products like phone cases, for example. Unfortunately, with current technology, this is the end of life for this material — but it is still better than single-use. Chemical recycling, by companies like Agylix, utilizes a chemical melting and purification process that yields liquid styrene. This process forms a loop (cradle-to-cradle) system that means that a previously single-use item can be considered “poly-usable.” Only a handful of companies have this technology, but I believe that it will be the preferred approach in the future for all types of plastic.
In 2019, during our island collections, we were able to pull over 100 cubic yards of foam and plastic out of the waste stream — the equivalent of three 40-foot shipping containers. While this certainly seems like a victory of sorts, it is also disturbing. It is difficult to hold up the mirror and see that even our small relatively-environmentally-conscious community has a lot of work to do.
So, what can we do?
• As consumers, we can refuse to purchase items that are packaged with single-use materials. There are alternatives and they are often a better quality and often sourced more locally.
• Since many of us on the island rely on shipped food, usually packaged in plastic foam coolers, please consider contacting the company that ships this to you and ask them to provide a return label so that the cooler can be reused (or find a local source to provide you with these items).
• If you receive wine or other beverages with plastic foam protection, please call or write to encourage your supplier to switch to molded pulp packaging (or give another winery your patronage).
• When packing or shipping an item, please reuse packing material. We offer free bubble wrap and peanuts and sheet plastic foam at our monthly events. Please email me and let me know if you would like some.
• If you are in the construction industry, please set up careful recycling stations on your job site. Let me know if I can help with this.
• Volunteer at one of our monthly collections.
• Donate money to Zero Waste Vashon for this or any of their other valuable programs.
Ultimately, we would like to have a more readily available system in place to manage these items. Zero Waste Vashon is working with King County to see when we can add plastic foam to the recycling section at the transfer station. We may also be able to create a plastic foam and packing materials resource center at some point. Stay tuned.
Thank you to all of the volunteers who have helped at the collections, our dedicated drivers, my liaisons at the Food Bank and Zero Waste and all of you who have brought us a Ziploc bag full of peanuts or a truckload of remodeling waste. A special thank you goes to Will Lockwood, Steve Bergman, Jacquie Perry and Jeff Berend.
Our next First Sunday Collection event is from 12 to 4 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 5, at the old Kimmco building. Please collect your holiday packing foam waste and help us fill our trucks. All materials must be clean and dry.
Nadine Edelstein is a tile and mosaic artist, the owner of Tile Design by Edelstein. She can be reached at Nadine@nadineedelstein.com or via Instagram at @tiledesignbyedelstein.com.