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Madison County finds new use for packing material taking up space in landfills

Ellen Abbott
Madison County collected 7,000 pouds of styrofoam during its pilot program recycling the material. The success of the program has led the county to decide to keep the collection in operation.

It started last January. Madison County residents would stuff the styrofoam that protects things like appliances or electronics into plastic bags, then toss them into blue trailers in the middle of the county’s landfill.  

According to county recycling coordinator Mary Bartlett, styrofoam takes up a lot of space in landfills, and it’s also unclear whether styrene can somehow seep into groundwater.

“It takes up space, and also there’s some question [what happens] once it’s in the landfill, and it starts getting packed down, and it’s hot in there, and stuff starts melting and styrene’s getting in the leachate, we don’t know,” Bartlett said. “So we’d rather keep it out of there.”

Bartlett said styrofoam recycling pilot program collected 7,000 pounds of loose foam, and recycling styrofoam will now become a permanent feature of the county’s recycling program.

There is a market for recycled styrofoam, but moving it and storing it is difficult. So Bartlett said once the county realized how popular the program was, they decided to invest in a densifier, a kind of trash compactor for styrofoam.

The machine will make it easier to transfer the bulky material to recyclers who turn it into a wood-like material used in construction, among other things.

Bartlett pointed out they only take clean material, so no food boxes or coffee cups.

“There’s a certain amount of sorting that you have to do before you densify it to make sure you’re not putting the wrong kind in,” Bartlett said.

She admitted the market for recycled styrofoam is a bit down right now.

“Recycling is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It really isn’t,” Bartlett said. “Whether it’s textiles are going for two cents a pound right now and, sometimes, when the markets are up and metal is up it’s great, but other times it’s not so great. We’re in it for the long haul.”

The county hopes to have the densifier in house by the end of the year, just in time for gift giving season when styrofoam really starts to accumulate.

She said anyone, even individuals or governments outside Madison County, are welcome to deposit bags of clean styrofoam in a special trailer at the county landfill.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.