This is what nagged at Ben Pyles: Walking by the Genome and Biomedical Sciences Facility’s Dumpsters and seeing them piled high with polystyrene cubes.
“Everybody in the scientific community knows it’s not a good thing to throw away,” said Pyles, a staff research associate at UC Davis. “You try to reuse (polystyrene containers) in your own space, like as an ice bucket, but what else are you going to do with it?”
Pyles has one cube that’s served as a bucket for years now.
Meanwhile, the lab in which he toils on a project designing proteins aimed at treating a form of autism receives seven or eight new coolers of supplies daily.
“Those get taken to the landfill, where they never go away. The (Environmental Protection Agency) says 500 years, and they’d know better than me,” he said.
On Wednesday, across from Aggie Stadium, UCD held its “Styro-palooza,” gathering maybe 20 to 30 cubic yards of polystyrene in just a few hours, most from a few neighboring buildings.
A washing machine-sized contraption from the Yuba City-based company Greenfreak then melted it into dense logs that together took up half of a pickup truck bed.
The logs will next be converted into a resin with the consistency of cornmeal, from which can be shaped products from a clip to hold close a bag of Doritos to parking bumpers.
Pyles and Allen Doyle, UCD’s sustainability manager, said that they envision a campus-wide foam recycling effort that could extend to partnerships with the city of Davis or Yolo County.
Doyle is launching a new green laboratory campaign intended to reduce waste in the campus’ 2,000 laboratories.
Such labs typically consume four or five times as much the amount of energy, water, chemicals, plastics and electronics as an ordinary office, he said.
He sees polystyrene recycling as a piece of that puzzle.
“We do know there’s a lot of pent-up demand,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of people calling, asking, ‘Are you going to do this regularly?’”
The campus is also encouraging vendors to minimize foam use and find ways to connect one lab that might need containers with another desperate to get rid of it.
Programs that send polystyrene back to manufacturers often don’t make much environmental sense because it might mean shipping a foam box a thousand miles, he said.
To succeed here, organizers must turn the heads of researchers focused on their work, Doyle said.
Pyles agreed. The only grumbling he heard Wednesday came from people annoyed with having to spend time dealing with polystyrene at all.
“What we want to do is make it like cardboard recycling — it just happens,” he said.
How the campus would run and pay for such a project is unclear.
Pyles said one possibility might be a campus tax of 25 or 50 cents on polystyrene items — similar to one imposed on new electronics that’s used to pay for recycling — that would fund monthly visits by Greenfreak. Maybe work-study students could handle the collection.
“If I order a cold pack for $55, will I notice if it’s $55.55?” he said, shrugging.
Wednesday’s event had a budget of $500, of which lab equipment supplier Fisher Scientific paid a portion. Greenfreak covered the cost of a generator.
Ilya Lerma, president of the two-year-old startup, said that it planned to manufacture products from the recycled foam. She imagines cities having replacement recycling can lids molded from the stuff, for instance, as one way they could meet their own sustainability rules.
At UCD, students of Ann Savageau, a professor of design, competed to produce ideas for a product to made with the resin from the recycling.
The winner: wall hooks on which to hang jackets or hats featuring past UCD logos. They may turn up for sale in the bookstore, Pyles said.
One more thing remains unclear: how much foam is sitting around, taking up space on campus.
“Is it a big problem? How much is there?” Pyles said. “Nobody knows.”
— Reach Cory Golden at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden.