Monday, January 6, 2014

The Styrofoam Conundrum, by MCR Christine W.

Why it is more environmentally friendly for Edmonton to NOT recycle Styrofoam?

Some landfills report up to a third of their space consume by Styrofoam (polystyrene). Ultimately we should try to reduce our use of Styrofoam. This includes not eating out at places that have a lot of packaging, and buying less “stuff” that comes packed to death. The only good use of Styrofoam that I have found is Japanese dome homes (worth Googling). These are cute little homes that look like something either a smurf or an alien would live in but, sadly, are ridiculously expensive and would not be rated for Edmonton climate.

The main challenge with recycling Styrofoam is bulk; it takes a lot of resources to ship. These two items weigh the same amount, but the spoon is so much smaller. Twenty of these spoons could be held in your hand, but twenty Styrofoam cubes would fill a garbage bag.

A few places in Alberta collect Styrofoam, including Grand Prairie and Cochrane. Both cities ship their polystyrene products to Asia for further processing.

Photo from Aquatera Utilities Inc.
This pile of 22 transit bags makes
approx. 16.5 ingots.
 The friendly folks in Grande Prairie shared some details about their process. They collect a range of clean Styrofoam products, including items like coffee cups and packing peanuts. They use a  $35,000 machine to break it down to a tenth of the original size into a product called “ingots”. 

The ingots are shipped to Japan to be made into hard dark plastic objects such as picture frames, encasements for computers, park benches, flower pots, architectural molding, toys, etc.

It is great that other places are recycling Styrofoam, so why doesn't Edmonton?

It's because the new Waste-to-Biofuels facility at the EWMC will convert the bulky Styrofoam directly into fuel. This facility will start operations this spring and is expected to be fully operational in 2016. Initially, it will produce methane from the Styrofoam and other waste that is not easily recycled or composted. Later on, it will produce ethanol which will be mixed with gasoline to reduce harmful emissions.
Photo from Aquatera Utilities Inc.
An ingot is 1 meter long and about 14 lbs.


  • Edmonton’s Styrofoam will not end up in a landfill here or anywhere else.
  • The Styrofoam is turned INTO fuel instead of requiring MORE fuel to process.
  • The final product (ethanol) will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Fortunately we are already on this path and are in a unique position to both keep our Styrofoam out of landfills AND create fuel from it!

Laura H. models a huge piece of Styrofoam.
Christine W. graduated from the MCR program in 2010. She has volunteered in many ways as an MCR including presentations to school groups, events and tradeshows, blog posts, presentations for new MCRs, compost workshops and the #YEG Repairathon.


  1. Great timely article on Styrofoam that we used to give to daycare till it was declared a fire hazard.
    Will B.

  2. Well done, Christine. I hadn't really thought about the huge amount of space that styrofoam takes up in our world, or how much energy might be required to break it down. I wonder what kind of energy bills Aquaterra faces to make those ingots...

  3. While turning it into fuel is way better than land filling it, I would like to see research into re-using it as styrofoam.

    The bulk of the material means that such use has to be local to minimize shipping costs.

    The best use I can think of would be a process to turn them into large (12" x 12" x 48") lego blocks.

    Styrofoam could be bonded together either with portland cement or with a dilute solution of acetone -- essentially fingernail polish.

    My vision of them is to mold them slight oversize, then get them down to the final size using hot rollers. This would seal the surface. The rollers could impress a pattern on the surface that could accept stucco directly without wire mesh.

    These could be used for temporary buildings, storage buildings, etc. Need to come up with an anchor system to keep them from blowing away. Or perhaps enough sand could be added to the mix to keep them from blowing around so easily.