GALVESTON, Texas — Galveston long has been a city of firsts. It was home to the state’s first post office, its first naval base, first gas lights, the first telephone and first electric lights.
And now, as far as anyone knows, the city is the first in Texas to equip its recycling center with a machine that will turn plastic foam, most commonly known as Styrofoam, into a potential moneymaker while keeping the non-biodegradable waste out of landfills.
Until very recently, the recycling center at 702 61st St. didn’t accept Styrofoam or other plastic foam products. But with the purchase of a $14,800 polystyrene densification machine, which island operators call an extruder, the city is welcoming plastic foam from all across the county.
Some other municipal recycling centers in Texas have balers for plastic foam, but only the island’s facility can transform the product into something marketable, officials said.
Smaller, Denser, Useful
On Wednesday morning, Gene Williamson, environmental services superintendent for the city, demonstrated how the machine works.
He turns it on, waits for it to heat to 302 degrees and feeds the hopper with food boxes from restaurants, coffee cups and other plastic foam products. The plastic foam must be rinsed and can’t contain food waste. The pieces are shredded then heated, which drives the air out.
The end product, which is far more dense and compact than the feed stock, is extruded like sausage. When the material cools, it hardens to a consistency Williamson likens to "hard, brittle candy."
50 pounds an hour
The extruder is capable of processing 50 pounds of plastic foam an hour. When the city amasses 35,000 pounds of the end product, which resembles a cow patty, employees of the machine’s maker — Florida-based RecycleTech — will travel to the island and pay the city 18 cents a pound for clean, white material and 12 cents a pound for end product that’s not white.
RecycleTech sells the material to a variety of customers, who melt the solid ingots again to make products such as bike helmets, photo frames and high-end crown molding. The recycled polystyrene is not approved for making medical products or for use by the food industry.
It could take about five years for the machine to pay for itself, Williamson said. Because plastic foam often makes its way into storm drains, the city paid for the machine with drainage utility fees residents pay, Eric Wilson, manager of municipal infrastructure, said.
The machine also will help keep plastic foam out of landfills, which will save the city money, Wilson said.
Styrofoam is a trademark of The Dow Chemical Co., whose researchers invented it in 1941. Because of its insulating properties and buoyancy, the U.S. Coast Guard approved its use in life rafts a year later, according to Wikipedia.
Since then, plastic foam has become ubiquitous, used in coolers, for all sorts of packaging and for food and beverage containers, to name a few uses.
Incidentally, cups and other serving items aren’t made from the Styrofoam brand, which often is incorrectly used as a generic term for the product.
Styrene, classified as a possible human carcinogen, poses an environmental health concern, and chronic exposure can affect the central nervous system, according to reports.
Plastic foam products take as long as 500 years to decompose and occupy about 30 percent of landfill space, Washington University officials said.
Enough polystyrene cups are produced each day to circle the earth if lined up end to end, according to Livestrong.com.
Island residents have long wanted to recycle plastic foam, Williamson said.
The machine is part of a broader effort to make the city recycling center more user friendly, Wilson said.
In January, seven city employees were either fired, resigned or transferred to other departments after some were caught on video in November using city materials and time building a barbecue pit trailer meant for personal use, among other issues.
The shake-up came after police investigations dating back to 2009. A surveillance video showed some employees using scrap metal, along with the city’s welding machine, tools and heavy equipment to make a large, towable barbecue pit.
Prior to the firings and transfers, the facility didn’t have a reputation for being friendly. Some residents stopped going to the center but are returning, Williamson said.
Those who have returned find helpful, cheerful employees and a more efficient center.
"Gene has taken ownership of this facility," Wilson said. "He’s doing an excellent job."
The center, which is cleaner and more streamlined, also has begun offering after-hours bins for convenience.
Williamson invited residents who had bad experiences to give the center another try.
"Please come out and meet my friendly staff," Williamson said.
The net cost to the city to operate the recycling center is about $350,000 a year. The center generates only about $40,000 to $50,000 through the sale of materials. Some of the costs are offset from savings on landfill fees.
This story was brought to you thanks to khou.com’s partnership with The Galveston County Daily News.