Sustainability at Tufts

Category: Ideas (page 2 of 21)

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.

Real Food Challenge GIM 2/27


Are you interested in sustainability,

social justice, or just eating good food?

Do you care about how or where your food was grown,

who grew it, or what it tastes like?

Does “real food” mean anything to you?


Whether “real food” already means a lot to you, or you just want to learn more about what it is and how we can bring more of it to Tufts, come to our GIM!


When: Wednesday, February 26th, 7pm

Where: Eaton 202

Who: A group of enthusiastic, committed food-lovers who want to work to be in control of what we eat in the dining halls while also acting as catalysts to transform the way our food system works on a larger scale.

What: A GIM to learn more about the Real Food Challenge, its platform, and how we as students can work with this organization to initiate change within the food system on campus.


Additional Info:

Feb 07:Can You Shuck it? Eat Oysters and Learn about Oyster Restoration in Boston


Thursday, February 7, 2013, 6:00 – 7:00pm
Cabot 206

Join Fletcher Green & the Fletcher Neptunes for a talk with Andrew Jay, founder of the Massachusetts Oyster Project.

Oysters used to thrive in Boston estuaries, serving as a food source and lucrative fishery, filtering wastewater, and creating a habitat for more than 100 other marine species. Come learn about the Massachusetts Oyster Project‘s current restoration project, the challenges of shaping fisheries policy, and the politics of conservation and non-profits.

National Climate Seminar – Bard CEP

Join the Bard Center for Environmental Policy the first and third Wednesday of each month at noon eastern to hear climate and clean energy specialists talk about the latest climate change issues.

Climate Seminar calls are held via conference call (Call-in number: 1-712-432-3100; Conference Code: 253385) and professors can assign the half-hour calls to their students for a chance to hear top scientists, analysts, and political leaders discuss climate and clean energy solutions. Have questions for the speakers? Email them beforehand or during the call to All calls are available as podcasts, 24 hours after the event.

In case you haven’t seen it, a new World Bank study confirms that we are on track for 750 ppm by 2100– or sooner– and a 4° C hotter world. Next Wednesday, February 6, at noon eastern, NRDC’s Daniel Lashof will talk about how to address the issue, focusing in particular on “Using the Clean Air act to Sharply Reduce Carbon Pollution from Existing Power Plants”. One of Dan’s key messages is that this won’t happen without pressure from climate activists.

Other speakers this semester will include Mike Tidwell on Cutting Carbon at Power Plants, Brenda Ekwurzel on After Sandy, What Next?, Mark Reynolds on Lobbyists for Climate Action, Katharine Wilkinson on Between God and Green, Bill McKibben on Corruption, Democracy, Climate, and Manuel Pastor and James Boyce on Co-benefits and Climate Justice.

For more information, click here.

Tufts Energy Competition 2013 (Deadline: Feb 1st)

Do you have a great energy idea? perhaps even a final project related to energy? Win up to $3,000 to jump-start your energy idea! Apply to the Tufts Energy Competition! 

Working on an innovative project on energy or sustainability that can be leveraged into a winning proposal? The Tufts Energy Competition is looking for your ideas! This competition is a celebration of innovative student-driven solutions to energy challenges. The goal of the Tufts Energy Competition is to support students implementing projects that explore solutions to key energy issues. The winning team will receive up to $3000 to implement their project, and the runner-up will receive $2000.

Every Tufts student is eligible to apply, including engineering students, undergraduates, Tufts medical students, international studies students, and more. The application is due February 1 and can be found on

Need some inspiration? Previous finalists and winners include:

  • A Split Junction Solar Concentrator for More Efficient Electricity Generation
  • Giving Students the Chance to Choose Their Energy
  • Efficient Hygiene Initiatives: Bringing Ecological Sanitation to Thottiypatti
  • Solar Powered Uninterruptible Power Systems
  • Ocean-Based Algae Energy
  • Wind Turbines and Solar Cookers in Zimbabwe
  • High Voltage Lithium Ion Battery Management System

The 2013 Energy Competition hopes to continue this success with your great ideas!

For more information on the 2013 Tufts Energy Competition please visit:

For any further questions or comments on the 2013 Tufts Energy Competition please email or

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