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Don’t throw away that Styrofoam

How a Caguas start-up is turning an eco-enemy into an export productana3790

Liz Howell had already developed a deep passion for the environment when she biked up and down the streets of Long Beach, Calif., as a young girl picking up stray bottles and diverting them from the county landfill.

She also came to understand the sound economics behind that seemingly innocent act, as she sold the bottles to recycling companies and made some extra cash.

Years later and armed with an environmental studies degree from University of Puerto Rico, she researched various businesses she could launch to make some money and contribute to solving one of the many vexing eco-crises in Puerto Rico, and decided on a venture akin to how it all began.

Instead of bottles, it would now be Styrofoam materials, and instead of going around on a bike, Howell leads a program at Jirah General Contractors in Caguas that either receives truckloads of the material from clients or places Styrofoam recycling machines at client locations.

The company will soon set up drop-off centers (centros de acopio) so clients won't have to haul the stuff to Caguas or rent a machine.

Howell then takes the Styrofoam, compresses it to manageable volumes (the machine removes the 98% air content from the plastic foam, better known as Styrofoam by its trademark brand name), and exports 100% of it for use as raw material for the manufacture of such products as auto parts, picture frames, shoe soles and computer components.

The company doesn't handle Styrofoam cups, only packaging and other materials, but is exploring various options to do so.

"We've become a great option for companies that have had no choice but to dump their Styrofoam in the landfills, since that implies a pickup and disposal cost that has gone up with the shutdown of so many landfills around the island," Howell told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS.

With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency due to close most of the island's remaining landfills in the next two years, that cost will only grow larger, making Jirah's Yo Reciclo solution even more attractive.

And environmentally friendly. Styrofoam is known to hang around a landfill for centuries while decomposing, and during that time is responsible for highly toxic emissions both to water bodies below and air currents above. The data for Puerto Rico is unavailable, but in the States, Styrofoam accounts for as much as a quarter of all landfill space in some regions.

Edition: August 2, 2012 | Volume: 40 | No: 30