UNCW begins Styrofoam recycling collection

Veronica Wernicke, Assistant Opinion Editor

UNC Wilmington has been offering a free recycling collection of Styrofoam to the general public since this past summer with the UNCW Warehouse Services.

With their new Styrofoam densifier, UNCW’s Warehouse Services have now found a way to recycle Styrofoam products like to-go food containers, coffee cups and packing materials. According to UNCW’s Warehouse Services website, this is the only one in New Hanover County. 

“[The Styrofoam densifier works by] grind[ing] and melt[ing] the Styrofoam,” said Theodore Bloodworth, UNCW’s Manager of Recycling and Warehouse Services. “Which is then made into a ‘brick-like’ shape for packing purposes.”

Bloodworth and UNCW student Christian Jones came up with the idea to bring a Styrofoam densifier to campus last year as a way to further increase UNCW’s and Wilmington’s sustainability and environmental efforts. This specifically addresses the issues associated with Styrofoam and its breakdown process.   

“So, the idea of the Styrofoam densifier was in talks for the last year I believe. I had been talking with the director of the recycling center about how to make the campus more sustainable,” said Jones. “The idea of recycling Styrofoam was one of them along with zero waste move in and move out.”

“Seeing the campus transition into a zero-waste institution was my biggest motivation. I definitely am proud of the people behind making the campus into a more environmentally conscious place to attend. With waste being one of the biggest issues we face, every decision counts,” said Jones.

Last year after Jonas heard the idea from Kathryn Pohlman, UNCW’s Chief Sustainability Officer and 2011 graduate, he worked alongside Recycling to put the project into action. Bloodworth said the initiative took about six months from start to finish to put into action.

“I happened to read an old report called ‘UNCW Recycling Expansion Initiative.’ While reviewing it, someone mentioned that Styrofoam densifiers exist, which I later mentioned to students,” said Pohlman. “It really has been a student and Recycling lead initiative, and they receive huge accolades for the hard work to implement this amazing program.”

Styrofoam is expanded polystyrene (EPS) and as EPS materials break down they can contaminate the environment, according to Mother Nature Network.  

“The less plastics we have in our environment and landfill, the better the future looks for the planet. Styrofoam is often found in broken pieces, which eventually becomes micro plastic. Eliminating any possibility of this in nature is beneficial to the flora and fauna,” said Pohlman. “Also, because there was no recycling available for Styrofoam in the past, it was often discarded into the trash. The space this takes up in the landfill is unnecessary, and chemicals it releases over time are harmful.”

In fact, EPS materials can take up to 500 years to decompose, and every year Americans throw away 25 billion Styrofoam cups, according to Mother Nature Network.

“Hopefully it will divert some of the Styrofoam from New Hanover County’s waste stream. The limiting factor at this point may be that people have to bring their Styrofoam to UNCW,” wrote Hill, Chair and Professor for the Department of Environmental Sciences at UNCW. “Not only does this create psychological and convenience barriers for the public, but requires the use of a non-renewable resource (i.e. gasoline) to drive your Styrofoam to be recycled.”

The Warehouse Services emphasize on their website that any Styrofoam or other EPS packing materials you bring for recycling to be clean and free of any waste or contaminates, otherwise it will be harder to recycle. 

“The machines only restrictions is the amount it can densify at one time,” said Bloodworth. “There are very big machines for this and we have one of the smallest versions.”

The smallest version of this machine is operated outside with dimensions of 787mm(W) x 1,101mm(D) x 1,500mm(H) and costs $20,000. Despite this price tag, this machine has very low maintenance, Bloodworth added. 

“So with this new piece of equipment, my biggest hopes for it are two things: reduction and awareness. I want to reduce the amount of Styrofoam that ends up in our landfills and oceans which will contribute to the school’s commitment to becoming a more sustainable college,” said Jones. “The second which will also result from the first item is people having a better understanding of what exactly they are throwing away, where it goes and how this can affect us in the immediate and distant future.”

This new machine adds to the multiple other efforts UNCW already makes in regard to recycling and sustainability. 

“I think the Styrofoam densifier is a fantastic addition to UNCW’s already thriving recycling program,” said Pohlman. “This collection and recycling program for Styrofoam is a solution to a long-standing environmental issue.”

“This is really exciting,” said Hill. “It is unique in our area and shows our commitment to sustainability. The fact that we are willing to take Styrofoam from the community is particularly of note.”

Styrofoam products can be dropped off at UNCW’s Receiving Warehouse located at 5179 Lionfish Drive. Drop-off times run Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Bloodworth said they hope to have a collection container in their 24-hour depot very soon. 

“[This initiative will help in] reducing the university’s overall carbon footprint and keeping such a harmful product like Styrofoam out of the county landfill,” said Bloodworth. 

In addition to their collection of Styrofoam and packing materials, students and Wilmington residents can drop off other recyclable items like plastic and glass bottles, aluminum cans, copier and computer paper, newsprint, magazines, lead-acid batteries, broken down cardboard and pasteboard, and electronics and wire at the Warehouse’s 24-hour depot located at the corner of Plyler and Lionfish,” said Bloodworth. 

Warehouse Services also collect recycling each day, between 8:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., from campus buildings bins. The full schedule can be found on their website. 

“There is much to be done at UNCW in terms of sustainability. However, what is quite ironic is that UNCW already does a lot (e.g. Styrofoam, recycling, composting, locally-sourced foods in dining halls and more),” wrote Hill. “Unfortunately, UNCW does an extremely poor job of spreading the word about its efforts. The community is largely unaware of these efforts, as are UNCW students, which is unfortunate.”