University of Wisconsin–Madison

Styrofoam Reuse and Recycling

UW-Boxable is a project funded by an Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) grant that seeks to create pathways for local reuse and recycling of Styrofoam (Expanded Polystyrene) shipping containers. The program is nationally recognized by the U.S. EPA and has won both Phase-I and Phase-II funding, being awarded a total of $105,000, through the People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) student design competition for sustainability. The grants fund Styrofoam collection services, undergraduate educational research, and recycling awareness which increase the local reuse and recycling of Styrofoam shipping containers.

Expanded Polystyrene (i.e. StyrofoamTM) is a very useful substance in the marketplace – it insulates nicely, absorbs shock well, is sturdy and remains durable while having the ability to be formed into almost any shape. Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is cheap to manufacture, and will not biodegrade. These traits all make EPS a fantastic substance for insulating coffee cups, supporting car bumpers, lightweight coolers for food service, or biological shipping containers. In an EPS shipping container, temperature sensitive products can be shipped with peace of mind, knowing that the container will keep its contents safe at a relatively constant temperature during the shipping process, making the container ideal for biotechnology companies who need to send sensitive products long distances quickly and safely.

However, the traits that make EPS so appealing to consumers, are also are the cause of concern in post-consumer disposal. By and large, polystyrene is thrown in the trash without a second thought. There are many reasons why expanded polystyrene is not often recycled, but the primary cause often is very simple: an EPS reuse or recycling program does not exist nearby.

This was the case for Madison, Wisconsin. A small team of undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison saw an opportunity for change. They found that University receives over 10,000 styrofoam shipping containers every year. Every container was sent to the landfill, destined to remain underground for hundreds of years never decomposing. In August of 2013, the team – which at that time had labeled themselves ‘UW-Styrocycle’ – presented at the EPA People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) competition in Washington D.C. They won Phase I funding to investigate instituting a styrofoam reuse and recycling program on campus. As a result of these funds, the Styrocycle team was able to collect data about EPS use on campus through life cycle analyses, surveys and interviews. The results of these studies almost immediately pointed to a massive need for an EPS reuse and recycling program.

Within the year, the original team had partnered with another campus organization, WE CONSERVE, and established a pilot EPS collection program for five buildings on campus that received high quantities of EPS. Using the data collected from this pilot program, the Styrocycle team went back to Washington to compete for Phase II funding. The proposal was well received and the program was granted a full Phase II grant, allowing Styrocycle to expand. The team was soon after adopted into the Office of Sustainability, developed relationships with two other universities and rebranded itself as Boxable: A Sustainable Shipping Coalition. The collection program at UW–Madison rapidly expanded to 25 buildings and autonomous EPS collection programs were initiated at both Washington University in St. Louis and University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Boxable and the City of Madison partnered with Uniek and all the EPS received on campus was processed by this local company. The reuse and recycling program is now effectively running and has prevented over 80,000 pounds of greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere.

Ultimately, Boxable seeks to divert all Expanded Polystyrene from the landfill by creating pathways for local reuse and recycling. We hope to revolutionize the ‘one-and-done’ mindset, which pervades consumer use of EPS, and instill the idea that styrofoam can safely and easily reused many times over. By working with local biotechnology companies like Protein Mods, Aldevron, and Stemina, Boxable has implemented a reuse program for EPS shipping containers, wherein the boxes are reintroduced into the shipping marketplace, saving 2.4 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per box reused.

On Campus
Facilities Planning and Management collects the following materials for recycling and reuse:

  • Styrofoam shipping containers
  • Large chunks of Styrofoam packing material (such as those that come around TVs, computers, and other electronics)
  • Shipping boxes

Recycled materials should be clean and shipping boxes should be empty. All materials should be placed in designated recycling areas at the following locations:

Biotechnology Company Partnerships
Protein Mods has connected with the P3 Team to receive styrofoam boxes for reuse in their operations.

Boxable is in the process of trying to grow their EPS sustainable program even further into our community, our city, our state and hopefully other states through other universities. To do this, Boxable is actively engaged in calling all biotechnology companies around Madison on a regular basis to inquire whether their company would have an interest in the program.

Depending on the company, they might have a little volume of containers to ship out or a large volume of containers.

Boxable hopes to capture those consumers and to accommodate accordingly to their needs such as size of boxes, additional materials frequently desired (packing peanuts) and competitive price.


Watch a news story about the Boxable project.

Principal Investigator: Cathy Middlecamp

Project Sustainability Researcher: Tim Lindstrom