Christmas is over, leaving us with happy memories, a fridge full of leftovers… and, likely as not, a pile of Styrofoam. Where does this stuff come from and where does it go?
We have been volunteering on behalf of Transition Meaford for the polystyrene recycling program since its inception in October 2021.
Plastics are numbered in order of the ease with which they can be recycled. With plastic #7 ranked lowest, it is rarely accepted. And yet, #7 polystyrene is what we collected the most of in our pilot project. This is the plastic molded by manufacturers to cushion fragile consumer goods for packing. The material is a recycling conundrum. The stuff is everywhere. It is in much of what we buy. It is very light, yet bulky to handle but so toxic for our land. One could even argue that the emissions caused by transporting Styrofoam for recycling negates the benefit. But what to do with it?
Halfway through the first year of the collection program we learned more about the recycling challenge. Questions arose. How much of our recyclables are in limbo, waiting for a third-world country to accept it now that China doesn’t want them anymore? Is recycling just a feel-good façade initiated by the plastics industry? Can recycling make economic and environmental sense? There are no easy answers.
And yet, people stashed their Styrofoam in their garages and brought the stuff every second Saturday morning of the month to the drop off at 87 Stewart Street. Garbage is something we lay at the curb to be whisked off to disappear by mass burial. Out of sight, out of mind. In the Styrofoam collection program, we learned that more and more people do care. At the drop off site, they were greeted by Transition Meaford volunteers. The initiative reminded all of us of our accountability to the Earth. It also brought people together in a difficult time, as we collected in the middle of winter and during the pandemic. We thanked the people who brought in their Styrofoam for participating in the program, and we showed them a sample of how their contribution gets reprocessed into hard plastics that can be used for many products, from picture frames to park benches: hence the need for the collected Styrofoam to be white and clean. It helped that at the end of each collection day, we sent the collected amounts to Dane Rice of Second Wind Recycling, a local company that transforms Styrofoam into molding and trim and insulation panels.
The Municipality of Meaford has taken over this recycling program, ensuring its continuation. Reducing waste can seem like an impossible goal. The polystyrene program is a small step in the right direction. There are many other challenges. Some years ago, Transition Meaford championed recycling of the #7 plastic wrap, another ubiquitous waste material. Perhaps one day soon our municipality will take on this challenge. The attached infographic demonstrates what change we, the residents of Meaford, made with upcycling this Styrofoam for fifteen months.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” Lao Tzu wrote many centuries ago. Changing our ways to care for this fragile earth is just such a journey.