Hope for Creation interviews one of the founding members of Kalamazoo's styrofoam recycling program to see how it all started!
Throughout this interview, as Rick indicates, the word “styrofoam” is used to indicate EPS, or expanded polystyrene.
How did this styrofoam recycling project get started?
So, I went out one time for styrofoam recycling at Cooper Township and the Township employee said, ‘You know, we've got a lot of Kalamazoo people bringing their styrofoam (EPS) out here. Why don't you start your own?’ I thought we'd want to do something similar, you know, that's why I took those pictures.
November of 2019. My story is that I happened to slightly know the mayor. I was down at Water Street Coffee Joint one day and he was there with Jeanne Hess, who's on the Environmental Concerns Committee and he said, ‘You need to talk to her.’ When I spoke to her, she said, ‘Yeah, you can make a proposal at our next meeting.’
At the meeting, we talked about where to start this project. They said, ‘Well, maybe you could get a trailer or a spot.’ [Someone suggested:] 'Why don't you talk to L.C. Howard?’
They're a trucking and warehousing firm here in Kalamazoo that’s been here for a long time, family owned. I talked to a guy named Chris, just so happens that his last name was Howard. I was in my little spiel about getting free warehouse space and he goes, ‘Time out,’ he says. ‘I hear that four letter swear word coming,’ and I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, "Free.”
That's exactly what I wanted is some free warehouse space. Can't do that, but he said I can give you a trailer, so he gave us this trailer. Then we had to figure out where to park the trailer. The city talked about a number of different spots to park the trailer and we ended up at the ballpark.
One day I drove in, this would have been on June 1st of 2021 and there was a guy painting it. It really works very well in that A; it doesn't have any overhead. You would not want to ever take it anywhere, as it’s not road worthy anymore.
L.C. Howard had beaten it up plentifully. It works fine for what we're using it for, keeps everything dry and that kind of stuff. And we're still using it today, you know? We have a number of people that have padlocks with the OK of Wendy, the city employee. A guy from a company called Dimplex called Wendy, so I went over and visited him at his business. They’ve got all these sheets of Styrofoam, and I went over to make sure they fit in the bags and now they take them over. I gave him a key and a few bags, and they brought it in. Dimplex handles the Styrofoam after they get these little compressors shipped in on probably 8 or 10 of these Styrofoam plates so that they don't get damaged. They get a lot of them, so this first collection of EPS recycling was probably a three-week supply of those.
There are probably other businesses that throw EPS away that we don't know about. With people like this bringing EPS in and the collecting we do from the average citizens, we’re starting to get a lot of EPS. We're doing it every quarter now, but we're thinking about shifting to every other month which will put more stress on the Volunteer labor staff, you know? We want to get people energized about doing the right thing for the Earth.
Some of the hardline environmentalists don't like to say positive words about DART Containers, but because DART Containers make Styrofoam cups; they make this possible by picking them up for free, giving us bags for free. When they pick it up, they regrind it and make other products out of it. They have a plant in Mason, MI. Just south of Lansing, about 1 hour and 15 minutes away. A few of us have been up there. They grind it, melt it down into ingots, and then ship them to Indiana and make picture frames, clipboards and baseboard molding out of it.
They bring their own trailer down and all they do is open the doors to their truck and our truck, back their truck right up to it that way. And then you just walk the bags from our truck into theirs, their trailer into theirs. It's really pretty easy work. I've done it a couple of times.
What made you specifically look at Styrofoam recycling as opposed to others?
It was that I used to sell machine components. As a manufacturing rep, I had my own business. And we used to sell a lot of products to DART, and I was kind of captivated by the fact that DART would do this kind of thing as a manufacturer to kind of better the world, better the environment. I don’t know, I wouldn't call myself a hardline environmentalist, but I was impressed with the DART move because without them we couldn't do this, you know? They are a big part of this component with this effort to get Styrofoam out of the landfill and into production.
DART makes EPS cups and that is what people know them for. They build some of their own equipment and so I used to sell them machine parts and they were a good customer.
Is there any specific advice you would give to someone who was trying to start a recycling program?
You have to have community buy-in and we have that now. They ran it for the first year and a half, what they called a pilot project. And so, we got beyond that and then they assigned Wendy to be the headmaster of our project. But I said, ‘Does that mean you don't want us volunteer laborers?’ And she goes, ‘Oh, no, no, no. You're an integral part of this.’ I don't think the city wants to assign paid labor to it if we can get away with not doing that. It’s people doing their job to improve the town, the way I see it.
What type of useful things did you learn throughout this journey?
I learned to just keep trying. You know, I ran into a number of walls like the one with the mayor kind of saying, oh no, but then he helped us out a little bit. “Did you know it was successful with Cooper? OK. So why wouldn't this work for Kalamazoo that has a population base of at least ten times more?” And so just keep trying. Now we have a good project going now and we just need to continue to let people know that. If they want to help us, they can help too, as far as the volunteer labor issue goes.
Everybody that I've talked to that has worked with us has said it was kind of fun. There’s some camaraderie that goes on. The fact that you're maintaining your earth space. That's a big deal. There’s a lot of people and it's not heavy lifting, right?