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Styropalooza: From waste bins to Aggie wall hooks

By Dave Jones on June 29, 2012 in University News

Styrofoam recycling at UC Davis

By Kat Kerlin

Week after week, research assistant Ben Pyles watched the Dumpsters outside the Genome Center fill up with Styrofoam, taking up maybe a third to half the space in the bins.

The university does not track the amount of Styrofoam (technically “expanded polystyrene”) waste on campus, but Pyles multiplied what he was seeing at his building by the 2,000 laboratories at UC Davis. Though inexact, the calculation was enough to make him want to find a solution. 

Now, thanks largely to his efforts, Styrofoam is coming full circle at UC Davis. Not only is Styrofoam from university labs being recycled, it’s also getting a second life as a student-designed product that may be sold in UC Davis Stores as early as September.

As part of the recycling project’s pilot stage, Pyles and others organized a “Styropalooza” collection event this week — yielding 731 pounds of the stuff. A second Styropalooza is expected later this year.

“Hopefully we can turn an environmental negative into a leadership role — something to show everybody this can be done,” Pyles said.

8 to 10 coolers a day come to some labs

So, what’s with all the Styrofoam coming to the campus? Think protection (to keep electronics in one piece during shipping) and cooling (for enzymes and cell culture media).

Some campus labs often get eight to 10 Styrofoam coolers per day.

Up until now, most of the Styrofoam ended up in the landfill, where the material is light but bulky, taking up more than its fair share of space (nationwide, Styrofoam takes up 20 percent to 30 percent of landfill space).

Allen Doyle, UC Davis sustainability manager, said Styrofoam recycling is a natural entry point for scientists to participate in materials recovery.

“It’s in their face all the time,” he said. “Styrofoam is accumulating in their labs, and many times, people horde it, wishing there was someplace for it to go. Now we’re finally giving it a place to go. With a research and conservation champion like Ben, this has been a fantastic process.”

GreenFreak gets the air out

Collecting the Styrofoam is one thing, but, then, what to do with it? Enter a Yuba City-based company called GreenFreak, which turns Styrofoam into plastic and the plastic into products.

Pyles forged a partnership with GreenFreak, which then worked with Pyles and Doyle to organize the June 27 collection. Thermo Fisher Scientific, a supplier of lab equipment and other products to UC Davis, sponsored the event with a $450 donation.  

GreenFreak does its recycling on site — in this case, a lot off Health Sciences Drive, next to the Genome and Biomedical Sciences Facility (across from Aggie Stadium).

A pile sprouted — mostly with drop-offs from campus labs and Veterinary Medicine Central Services — and GreenFreak then put every piece through a densifier, a portable machine that fits in the back of a pickup.

The densifier heated and compressed the Styrofoam, pushing out the air, turning the Styrofoam into hard, white logs of grade A resin.

The resin goes elsewhere for grinding and melting, after which it can be put through injection molding — for the manufacturing of such products as chip bag clips, shin guards and helmets, and … Aggie wall hooks. 

Design student named Eco-Innovator

UC Davis design student Justine Smith designed the wall hooks—which feature the Aggie mustang logo in various forms—making her the 2012 Eco-Innovator winner in a contest held by GreenFreak. 

After hearing about the contest, Pyles contacted design professor Ann Savageau, who encouraged her sustainable design students to get involved. She suggested Aggie products and approached UC Davis Stores about selling the winning product.

“If we can do it here, it can be adopted by other schools,” Pyles said, noting how the Aggie logo can be swapped out.

Doyle and Pyles described this week’s Styropalooza as a starting point to see how much Styrofoam the campus produces and what can be done with it. They would like to see Styrofoam recycling as an option year-round on the campus.

“After we do this three or four times, we’ll learn better how to do it full time,” Doyle said.

Pyles added: “We need to open the conversations and see how we can put a system in place. If it’s not easy, it won’t be done.”

Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,