Daily Archives: October 7, 2013

Tufts Eco-Ambassadors Take on Styrofoam Mountain

Styrofoam seems to be a perpetual nightmare for environmentalists. A petroleum-based plastic foam consisting mostly of air, it can’t be composted or thrown in with most municipal recycling programs, but for many uses it remains the only practical product.

For example, when departments at Tufts order biomaterials, gel packs or dry ice, styrofoam is the only feasible shipping option, as it keeps the materials cool. Enter Emily Edwards, a staff member in the Chemical and Bioengineering Department, and Abbey Licht, a graduate student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, both of whom became Eco-Ambassadors in 2011 at the Science and Technology Center on our Medford campus. They grew curious when they noticed those unmistakable white shipping containers piling up outside labs and classrooms in their hallway: Could they redirect styrofoam away from landfills?

To assess how much actual need existed, Edwards and Licht began collecting the boxes from the SciTech building in a storage room. After just a month, sixty boxes had accumulated.

Hoping that a solution might already exist on campus, they first talked to Dawn Quirk, the Waste Reduction Program Manager in the Facilities Services Department, about recycling the styrofoam shipping containers. Unfortunately, while the Tufts Recycles program accepts a wide variety of glass, plastic, and metal items, styrofoam can’t go into our green bins.

Above: a month of styrofoam.

Edwards and Licht knew of a local company that would recycle the styrofoam. ReFoamIt, based in Framingham, Massachusetts, compacts the styrofoam into logs at a plant in Rhode Island, then ships it away to be turned into toys and other consumer products.  But Edwards and Licht were also aware that the boxes they were storing were at least 89% air. Could they somehow reduce the volume of the styrofoam to make for easier storage and more efficient transportation? If they handled the styrofoam themselves, would the environmental impact be lower than that of ReFoamIt’s trips to Rhode Island?

Both admit that they are first and foremost engineers, not chemists. Still, like students tackling a science class project, Edwards and Licht dove right in. They first experimented with physical change, recruiting volunteers to smash the styrofoam. They employed mallets and even had the volunteers jumping up and down on top of the boxes – but despite how light and airy styrofoam may seem, Edwards says, it’s a much harder material than one would think, and after hours of work there was little significant volume reduction. The exhausted volunteers placed the styrofoam chunks into bags to be picked up by ReFoamIt.

Not to be discouraged, Edwards and Licht next sought to turn the styrofoam back into a hard, dense plastic. Their first method was chemical: they placed pieces of the styrofoam in cups of acetone, which reduced the plastic to a goopy slime that hardened once the acetone evaporated. While the process resulted in a significant volume reduction, one bag of smashed styrofoam boxes required a whole gallon of acetone, which then evaporated into the air, so significant ventilation was required during the experiment. Moreover, the bottom of a tray of the hardening plastic took months to dry.

Above: a bag of styrofoam boxes, and the equivalent amount of hardened plastic after melting in acetone. The ratio of the volumes was about 50 to 1.

Next, Edwards and Licht melted styrofoam in a large oven at 464 degrees Fahrenheit. This experiment also successfully reduced the volume, but the process produced powerful fumes which filled the lab and the connected hallway. Moreover, only a certain amount of styrofoam could fit into the oven at a given time, so Edwards and Licht needed to open the oven periodically to add more foam, losing heat in the process.

Above: the result of melting styrofoam in an oven. The volume reduction was about the same as in the acetone experiment.

Finally, Edwards and Licht investigated alternatives to styrofoam. After hearing a story on NPR, Edwards ordered an Ecovative box made out of a mix of mushrooms and straw grown into a mold. The box’s weight is similar to that of styrofoam, but Edwards notes that the box has a slight smell and an unusual texture that might not appeal to the general public. So while the mushroom box was an interesting innovation, Edwards couldn’t see a widespread application for them at Tufts.

Above: the mushroom boxes from Ecovative.

 

Ultimately, Edwards and Licht determined that the most efficient, affordable and safe way to dispose of the accumulated styrofoam would be to set up a partnership with Save That Stuff, another local recycling company with which Tufts already has a relationship. Quirk organized a monthly pick-up arrangement, and it has been running smoothly ever since.

Above: sacks of styrofoam waiting for Save That Stuff.

Even though they weren’t able to find an effective way to minimize the styrofoam before sending it away, Licht and Edwards seem satisfied with the results. Licht mentions that until they started collecting the boxes in one room, she had never really thought about how much styrofoam the building used or where it all went. (Prior to their initiatives, it all went into the trash.) They seem eager to find where else this model can be applied at Tufts – there are bound to be other sites of potential improvement that go under the radar, undetected until someone dares to ask whether there might be another way.

Moving forward, Edwards and Licht and Tufts Recycles! are hoping to expand the use of the system they have established at SciTech to collect the styrofoam from labs at the Gordon Institute (200 Boston Avenue) and from the biology department.

Organizational Intern, Toxics Action Center

At Toxics Action Center, we start from the core belief that everyone has a right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live in a healthy community where government operates responsively and democratically. Our mission is to make these rights a reality by organizing side by side with residents who are facing toxic threats. We train residents in the skills and know-how they need to run effective local campaigns, while also developing long-term leaders to fuel New England’s progressive movements.
 
Over the last 26 years, Toxics Action Center has organized side by side with residents in more than 700 communities as the 911 of the environmental movement, winning countless victories to protect public health and the environment and sparking broader state and regional policy changes.
 
Toxics Action Center seeks an intern that will play a key role in support of our program work. Organizational interns work closely with the administrator, event planner and development director. They will take part in the foundations of Toxics Action Center’s work, helping with fundraising efforts, planning our annual activist conference, and administrative duties.
 
Responsibilities
 
- Manage Toxics Action Center’s social media, including Facebook, flickr and twitter.
- Create action alerts for members to weigh-in with decision makers on important issues.
- Play a key role in putting together events such as house party fundraisers and activist conferences.
- Maintain and organize records of donors, member lists, news articles, trainings and more.
- Recruit supporters out to events, including movie screenings, rallies, press conferences, and public hearings.
- Assist with general administrative tasks 
 
Skills Required
 
- Commitment to environmental issues and social change
- Strong communication and writing skills
- Desire to develop event planning and outreach skills
- Social media aptitude
- Must learn quickly and work efficiently
 
To Apply
 
Our internships operate on a rolling start and end date and have flexible hours. Please e-mail resume and cover letter to Megan Stokes at megan@toxicsaction.org.
 
Toxics Action Center is an equal opportunity employer and will not discriminate against any employee or applicant on the base of race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion, age, sex, handicap, pregnancy, sexual orientation, or veteran status.

The Eco-Reps are at it again…in preparation for Zero Waste Week!

If the last week has been a bit quiet from the Eco-Reps, it’s probably been because of exams and papers, but also because we’ve been preparing for Zero Waste Week, which starts October 9th and runs through October 16th! You might have seen us scurrying around in Lewis or the Crafts Center getting our buttons and bags ready for the big day. To learn more about Zero Waste Week, feel free to talk to your local Eco-Rep, or go here: http://sustainability.tufts.edu/zero-waste-challenge/. We look forward to seeing all the Zero Waste Week participants, especially at Jumbo Mountains at noon on the 16th! Bags will be distributed at several places on campus, so be sure to talk to your Eco-Rep if you plan on taking the challenge!

Murvi hard at work

 

In other news, Eco-Reps Audrey Dunn and Chantal Davis held the H2(WHAT!?) event in Hill Hall last Thursday, October 3rd to great success! Water trivia night was a blast, and you can see some of the photos below.

IMG_3931 IMG_3932

 

Campaigns will be fully underway soon, so be on the lookout as Eco-Reps organize events to raise awareness for what initiatives we have planned for the dorms! South Hall will be having a freecycle event in the near future, so bring your junk, bring your treasure, or even your compost, and see if anyone wants it! It’s about that time of the year, so good luck with exams and papers everybody! Until next week.

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