Squash that styrofoam to keep it out of landfills, Alberta company says

Styrofoam packaging is getting recycled in St. Albert, offering a glimmer of hope for those who had long-hoped that the ubiquitous packaging product could end up somewhere other than a landfill.

Styrofoam that fills two trailers can be compressed to the size of kitchen fridge

Robert Herritt of Styro-Go shows off just how compressed styrofoam can get. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC)

Those hunks of styrofoam that encase your latest Amazon purchase could soon find a new purpose.

Residents just need to look a little north — to St. Albert — to see the potential for styrofoam scraps to be turned into useful material.

For the past year, residents have been driving out of their way to drop off the squeaky, crumbly packaging at a city-run recycling depot. The city then pays Styro-Go to bring its mobile recycling facility — a special truck — to the site where it's filled with mountains of styrofoam.

At the recycling facility, the material is heated, pressed, and squished into compact plastic bricks that can be made into other plastic products.

"We're just squashing it a lot. We put it in a machine and it uses a lot of heat and a lot of pressure — thousands of PSI. And with heat and pressure, we're able to compress the material. It's about a 90-to-1 compression ratio," said Robert Herritt, the company's founder, speaking recently to CBC's Radio Active

Styrofoam recycling machine in action

2 years ago
Duration 0:15
Styro-Go's polystyrene recycling machine processes styrofoam so it can be remade into new products.

The material commonly called styrofoam is properly known as expanded polystyrene foam or EPS (not to be confused with Styrofoam, a trademarked brand of extruded polystyrene foam used to make blue insulation boards.)

Herritt started the company two years ago in Calgary and his trucks now operate permanently in two B.C. municipalities and Strathcona County. The St. Albert program has been operating as a pilot, and Herritt thinks there's potential for styrofoam recycling to take off in Edmonton and Calgary, too.

Better than shipping air

Herritt was visiting a job site several years ago when he saw giant piles of styrofoam destined for the dump. He asked around and learned that recycling the material can be very expensive.

"Before doing it with this model, where we collect and the processor (crushes) it on site and transports it, you'd have to transport the styrofoam in massive truckloads. You're essentially transporting air," said Leah Seabrook, manager of Strathcona County's waste management program.

A 16-metre-long trailer, filled with 85 cubic metres of styrofoam, can be compressed to half the size of a kitchen fridge, she said.

Compact bricks of clean styrofoam can be easily transported to factories that will re-use the material in other plastic products. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC)

Herritt figured it makes most sense to condense the material on-site. So he hired engineers to design a truck equipped with a machine to pack down the styrofoam through a high-heat, high-pressure process.

The end product is a taffy-like material that takes up seriously less space — they're compact bricks that could be stored in the back of a cube van. Styro-Go then ships the bricks, usually to Asia, to be made into new plastic products again. 

"We send it half-way around the planet to get remade, then it comes right back here," he said. "Virtually everyone in Canada would have something made from it in their home. It's a ubiquitous plastic that gets remade into almost everything."

Herritt thinks if styrofoam recycling started happening in Alberta's biggest cities, there might be enough of the compressed material to open factories that use the material here.

In the meantime, St. Albert has been successfully running its pilot program since last summer. They accept only clean styrofoam (no food containers, even if they've been cleaned out). 

Olivia Kwok, waste management supervisor at Mike Mitchell Recycling Depot, says people regularly drive to the depot to drop off their packaging.

"We also collect other materials, so it becomes a thing where residents will bring chemicals or electronics or batteries and other materials, too," she said.

The operation in St. Albert has squashed about 4,000  kilograms of styrofoam since it started last summer. It accepts styrofoam only from St. Albert residents.

But Albertans don't have to throw out their styrofoam packaging. London Drugs stores in the province accept clean styrofoam packaging, that the company itself then ships to processing facilities in B.C. 

With files from Madeleine Cummings


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