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Web extra: To learn more about the technology used to recycle expanded polystyrene, visit the “article links” page under “resources” at www.pwmag.com.

Environmental do-gooders in the nation's third-largest city have another reason to smile: Residents can now throw expanded polystyrene—otherwise known as “Styrofoam”—into designated recycle bins along with the traditional aluminum cans, glass, and paper.

Don't think this is a big deal? Consider this: Before the Bureau of Sanitation introduced polystyrene recycling, Los Angelenos, like much of the rest of the country, could only dispose of expanded polystyrene in the following ways:

  • Drop it at a collection site that accepts such material—assuming there's one within driving distance
  • Ship it to the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers
  • Use solvents to break it down into a sticky substance that can be used as glue
  • Throw it in the garbage, to take up tons of space in a landfill.

With the exception of the last, environmentally unfriendly option, none of the above is very convenient for the average citizen who just wants to take out the trash.

Composed of 5% polystyrene and 95% air, expanded polystyrene has long been a problem child for U.S. recyclers. Though ideal for protecting and transporting fragile goods without adding weight, its nonbiodegradable polymers make it an environmental pollutant. Efforts to recycle the bulky, lightweight foam have been either costly (shipping) or dangerous (toxic melting processes). Without a viable recycling alternative, many cities have considered banning use of the material, which is hard to enforce.

Los Angeles found a way around the negatives though agreements with local material recovery facilities like Bestway Recycling Co. Inc., which uses a machine imported from Europe to compact expanded polystyrene into 19-pound/cubic-foot blocks that are convenient to ship.

Recycling facilities buy the Styrofoam, commingled with other materials, from the city for approximately $25/ton; condense the foam after enough has been collected; and sell the recycled material to Timbron International Inc., a San Francisco Bay-area company that makes recycled expanded polystyrene into “green” building materials. Curious Los Angelenos can see what happens to their packing materials by checking out interior moldings at Home Depot.

According to Sanitation Bureau Assistant Director Alex Helou, to help the facilities recoup costs the department waived a profit-sharing option that it normally receives for collected materials. “We want to help the [recycled polystyrene] market mature,” he explains. It costs Bestway $5 to $7/ton to recycle expanded polystyrene.

The facility has generated about 15 to 20 tons of material in the past six months. Bestway CFO David Cho hopes to break even on his company's investment in the specialized recycling equipment within the next two to three years.

Though the market is in its infant stages, Helou says surrounding communities are starting to piggy-back on Los Angeles' program and another company has expressed interest in purchasing the recycled material.

So far, it looks like a win-win-win solution to a long-term challenge: Residents can conveniently recycle more materials, recyclers have a new material to market, and the bureau is one step closer to meeting a citywide goal of diverting 70% of its solid waste stream from landfills by 2015.

“We're always trying to push the envelope on recycling,” Helou says. “We're looking now at collecting clothes.”