Monday, December 26, 2022

Out of the Box


December 26th is known in the UK as Boxing Day. There are multiple explanations for this and none of them is a clear winner. It’s interesting to read about, though. In the US some folks observe the day after Christmas by returning presents they didn’t like or by shopping the after Christmas sales.

Today I’d like to talk about a different kind of box.

Boxes like this one appear at my house twice per month, holding injectable medication. It must be refrigerated, so it is shipped is a cooler with ice packs.

The medication has been life-changing in addressing my severe asthma. Every time a box arrives I’m grateful all over again: for good health care, for adequate health insurance, for the people who researched and developed this treatment.

They’re used for more than shipping medication, of course. The combination of the coolers and ice packs make it possible to ship perishable food products, as well. It’s now possible to ship pork pies, steaks, seafood, and items that were previously known solely as regional delicacies. My nephew sent us a “fill your own cannoli” kit all the way from Chicago. 

These shrink-wrapped white boxes often herald culinary adventures - - they’re almost the Wells Fargo Wagon equivalent of the present day.

But: the box. Or, should I say: the boxes? For me it has meant two per month, for well over a year. And there’s no end in sight. Styrofoam is not recyclable. I find it painful to keep putting them in the trash.

Is Styrofoam recyclable?   The short answer is no.  At least not in the recycling we put out on our curb or take to the City's recycling sites.  Styrofoam (or polystyrene foam) can include take-away coffee cups, takeaway food containers, meat trays, and shipping packing. It contains a type of plastic called expanded polystyrene.  

Why can't it be recycled?  This material is made of tiny individual pieces that burst apart when put through the sorting process.  Putting Styrofoam into the recycling bin will contaminate the whole bin, so all Styrofoam must go into the landfill bin. 

Did you know? Styrofoam takes more than 500 years to break down and it's estimated that 2.3 million tons of styrofoam end up in the landfill every year!

What can you do?  The best thing is to avoid styrofoam when possible.  There are programs around the US that have special processes that allow for the recycling of expanded polystyrene like Plastilite Corporation in Omaha.

If you do find yourself with Styrofoam that you need to throw out make sure it goes into the garbage. - - Can you recycle styrofoam? by Melissa Mercier

These foam coolers appear in my Buy Nothing group fairly regularly. We all know they’re not recyclable and we desperately want to keep them out of the landfill where they will sit, as unchanging reminders if a single-use trip, for five hundred years.

I’ve been on a quest to find a local connection for recycling these things. Surely there’s an Upcycled but for styrofoam coolers? So far I haven’t had any luck. I find it both amusing and pathetic that a company like Omaha Steaks, whose entire business model depends on these things, tries to push off their corporate responsibility onto consumers. “It’s cooler to use and re-use,” they say.

I went down a bit of a rabbit hole on the internet one day trying to find a local (or relatively local) styrofoam recycler.

After several hours I gave up. If you know of one, please tell me. I’m striking out. I know that there’s little likelihood of a successful recycling process for these if they don’t provide a viable revenue stream post-recycling. No company recycles for recycling’s sake alone There has to be enough money in it to pay the bills, if not turn a respectable profit.

What products could be made from recycled styrofoam coolers?  Is there a way to spin straw into gold here? Can we make houses out of them? Bus stops? Shelter for animals in cold weather? Playground equipment? Or should the companies using them be required to have a stake in recycling and/or reusing? 

Should we be inventing something else to do the same job that doesn’t harm the planet?

Image from the Surfrider Foundation 

If I could return anything on this Boxing Day, it would be this. But I don’t know where to take it.

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