UW-Madison team to present Styrofoam reuse program in Washington, D.C.

April 23, 2014

Update, April 29: The Styrocycle team received a phase II grant in the Environmental Protection Agency’s People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) student design competition. The $90,000 award will enable the team to expand and prototype their program. Read more.

A team of University of Wisconsin-Madison students is educating people, promoting prosperity and protecting the planet in its development of recycling and reuse networks for Styrofoam boxes and shipping materials on campus.

Emily Baumann, Jenna Walsh, Katelyn Budke and Jared Ottmann are undergraduate students who won a competitive grant from the Environmental Protection Agency through its People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) student design competition, which promotes the development of sustainable solutions to everyday problems. The team is supervised by Andrew Markley, who is a postdoctoral fellow in chemical and biological engineering.

With the $15,000 phase I grant, the team investigated the waste streams, collection systems, reuse options and carbon footprints associated with Styrofoam boxes and other shipping materials including packing peanuts, shipping boxes and reusable freezer gel packs.

The team will present its project, called Styrocycle, at the National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C., April 25 to 27, where the group will compete to win a phase II $90,000 grant to implement the program it developed to address packaging material waste.

Last week, the P3 team presented its research at Sustainability Lunch HOUR (Highlight of Undergraduate Research), which is an undergraduate research brownbag event sponsored by the Office of Sustainability.

Walsh, who spoke at the event, said UW–Madison has more than 3,000 labs, many of which send and receive materials in expanded polystyrene (EPS) boxes.

EPS boxes, better known as Styrofoam boxes, are useful for shipping materials for scientific research because they insulate well and help keep materials such as laboratory reagents and samples at a constant temperature.

But the production of Styrofoam boxes is labor- and resource-intensive, emitting approximately 2.5 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere per box, according to Walsh, which is why a Styrofoam box reuse network is environmentally responsible.

The team found in its research that local reuse of a Styrofoam box would reduce the box’s carbon footprint to 0.7 pounds of CO2 equivalent.

Baumann, the team’s undergraduate lead, said a critical part of the P3 project has been establishing relationships with local biotech companies with an interest in reusing the boxes WE CONSERVE collects at 15 EPS recycling locations on campus.

“We have so many boxes,” Baumann said. “It’s just a matter of getting [the companies] to use the used boxes because it’s so easy for them to just buy new ones.”

The group has partnered with several Madison-area biotech companies, including Aldevron, Stemina Biomarker Discovery and Protein Mods, to provide boxes for reuse. They also work with UW-Surplus With A Purpose (SWAP), which sells Styrofoam boxes and packing peanuts, and Uniek, Inc., a Waunakee-based company that recycles Styrofoam into picture frames and other products.

Baumann said there is also financial incentive for companies to participate in a Styrofoam reuse network because a new Styrofoam box costs between $5 and $12, and they could receive used boxes for a low or no charge.

Currently, the P3 team does not charge companies a fee for the Styrofoam boxes it provides, but Baumann said the team is researching the economic implications of a no-charge system.

Ottmann, another of the P3 team members, said he thinks EPS recycling is a growing concern in the environmental community, citing New York City’s decision to ban Styrofoam food containers within city limits.

“I think we will be very competitive in D.C.,” Ottmann said. “This is a good program to really reduce the environmental impact of this waste stream.”

Moving forward, Baumann said she is excited to bring the idea to Washington, D.C., but she would like to see the project continue even if it does not move to the next phase of the competition. 

Watch the Styrocycle elevator pitch and read more about the project here.

Note: Team members Jenna Walsh and Katelyn Budke are both Nelson Institute students, pursuing the environmental studies undergraduate certificate and major, respectively.