Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Florida is enlisting the aid of machines to "densify," "palletize" and "smush" polystyrene, the familiar coffee cup and packaging material known by its trade name Styrofoam.
The aim is to make the lightweight material smaller, denser and heavier so it can be sent efficiently to a recycler. "It's so light that if you can crush it, you can transport more," says Ron Henricks, administrator for the state's Waste Reduction Section in the Department of Environmental Protection.
The first pilot program began in Polk County in 2004. Companies that used to send egg cartons, sheets of polystyrene and Styrofoam cups to the landfill, where it would blow around, now send about 5,000 pounds a day of recyclable polystyrene to a facility that compresses it--in a way no foot coming down on a cup could. Officials estimate that more than 1.2 million pounds of Styrofoam have been recycled since the program began.
The most recent round of state grants will look at ways to spread the program throughout the state. If there is interest from enough governments, it's possible that the special equipment could end up in as many as half of the counties. It would make sense for about 25 of the state's 67 counties, those with populations of 150,000 and above. One school district that uses thousands of foam trays in its cafeteria every day is considering purchasing the equipment, which can cost from $26,000 to $50,000.
The state also would like to find ways to sell the crushed polystyrene in the United States. Large blocks of it currently are sold to China and South Korea, where it is used to make picture frames and shoes, among other things. "It would be nice," Henricks says, "to find markets here."