By Kara Guzman, Santa Cruz Sentinel
Photo- No Waste Wednesday
FELTON >> Starting in January, Styrofoam waste will be recycled for the first time in Santa Cruz County — a major step toward freeing valuable landfill space and restoring water quality for marine life.
San Lorenzo Valley Redemption and Recycling Centers has purchased a Styrofoam recycling machine, which melts large, lightweight foam blocks into a dense paste that can be reused. The device, which looks like a 5-foot, 1,400-pound washing machine, is mobile, and the center plans to use it at county disposal sites.
The advantage of the paste is that it’s not only 90 times denser than solid foam and cheaper to ship, but also valuable as a commodity, said David Wright, the centers’ director.
Wright said he’s able to sell the paste to manufacturers in China to build plastic items such as picture frames and crown molding. The paste, which dries into hard blocks, sells for about 40 cents per pound, making it the recycling centers’ most valuable plastic, he said.
“The resale value is high and there’s a demand for it,” said Wright, who urges county residents to hold onto their clean Styrofoam packaging until the program kicks off in late January.
“Landfills are filling up, and this helps slow the process,” he said.
About 426 tons expanded polystyrene, which has a brand name of Styrofoam, occupy county landfills, according to a 2009 analysis. That’s 0.5 percent of the county’s waste by weight — a significant amount considering how light it is, said Jeffrey Smedberg, county recycling programs coordinator.
Since 2008, the county, Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Capitola and Scotts Valley have adopted bans on restaurant use of polystrene packaging. More recently, all county jurisdictions except Scotts Valley have also banned the sale of polystrene products, such as foam cups.
But reducing waste is only part of the solution, Smedberg said. When Styrofoam doesn’t make it to the landfill, it endangers marine life, he said.
Greg Pepping, the Coastal Watershed Council’s executive director, said Styrofoam breaks into tiny bits that look like food to fish and birds. The foam acts as a sponge, attracting chemical runoff and creating poisonous nuggets eaten by marine life, he said.
“It doesn’t biodegrade. Sunlight does not break it down, like natural fibers,” Pepping said. “That’s all separate from the fact that we just don’t like to see it. People have a harsh reaction to it.”
Cleanup crews from Save Our Shores have collected more than 130,000 pieces of Styrofoam in the county since 2007, or 7 percent of total waste collection, according to Rachel Kippen, program manager.
This year, the San Lorenzo Valley centers aim to recycle 5 percent of the Styrofoam that enters the county, or 21 tons, said Wright. With more machines, the program could have greater impact, Wright said. The centers, which are a program of the Valley Women’s Club, purchased a machine, thanks to a $33,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County.