YOU'VE just finished the last juicy bite of your McDonald's Quarter Pounder. You gather up all your trash and begin dumping everything into the waste container. But hold on! That Styrofoam container doesn't need to contribute to America's garbage crisis. In fact, many common polystyrene throwaways - including Styrofoam cups, plastic silverware, and packaging material - can be recycled.
A new recycling operation here in this north central Bay State community, Plastics Again, is transforming these materials into a reusable, harder plastic. This material can then be made into flower pots, coat hangers, and fence posts, among other things.
Backed by a consortium of seven major polystyrene manufacturers, Plastics Again is the first recycling plant of its kind in the United States. The facility opened last month and is one of five planned for different regions of the country. The consortium, called the National Recycling Company, aims to recycle 25 percent of all polystyrene food-service disposables by the year 1995.
With the new venture, polystyrene throwaways can now be added to a growing list of recyclables: paper, plastic beverage containers, cans, and milk jugs. In today's crowded nonaerobic landfills, or waste areas lacking oxygen for biodegradation, polystyrene can hang around for years.
Conservationists say it's a welcome step forward, but they caution against any expectation that recycling will solve America's growing landfill crisis.
``We need to encourage plastics recycling. There's no doubt about that,'' says John Ruston, economic analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund in New York City. He notes, however, that the push for companies to recycle plastics may be due to profit potential as well as community pressure to impose polystyrene bans. ``The real debate,'' he says ``is how do we get rid of disposables all together?''
But recycling advocates say the relatively simple process will make a difference in reducing waste. One of the seven consortium companies, Mobil Chemical Company, has done polystyrene recycling from leftover scrap material, or ``trim scrap,'' in the past, says Robert Barrett, environment officer at Mobil in Pittsford, N.Y. ``We have done that for years, and know that part [recycling] is technically possible,'' he says.
Through a relatively simple operation, Mr. Barrett says, this same process is used for recycling polystyrene trash items. The Leominster plant is using polystyrene throwaways - delivered via a private waste-collection hauler - from schools, prisons, and company cafeterias.
The material is sifted to remove food particles and other trash items. It is then washed, put through two grinding processes, and melted into a liquid. The liquid material hardens into pea-sized pellets. These pellets will be shipped to other companies, which can readily transform them into new plastic products. The recycled plastic costs one third less than virgin material, says Plastics Again manager Tom Tomaszek.
Collecting the polystyrene has been easy, he says, as there has been a lot of interest in the project. Two school systems donated their polystyrene trash in a pilot project last winter. The company has also made agreements with 50 schools to participate in polystyrene recycling this fall, Mr. Tomaszek says.
Special bins are placed in cafeterias where diners are asked to stack polystyrene trays, bowls, and cups in different compartments. Food particles must be removed from the containers as well.
People were generally cooperative in the plant's pilot collection program, says Tomaszek. The company made a special effort to reach students and educate them about recycling.
``We really targeted the schools to begin with because we figured if we started with the schools, we would educate these people for a way of life,'' Tomaszek says.
Schools in Lexington, Mass., and Glastonbury, Conn., for example, donated their lunchroom trash to the plant in the pilot program. Most of the Lexington students have been cooperative, but not all of them have been as enthusiastic, says James MacInnes, Lexington's assistant school superintendent.
``At the middle schools and elementary schools, it's working the best. The high school youngsters aren't doing it as well,'' Mr. MacInnes says.
But some communities are not waiting for a recycling plant to reduce polystyrene waste. Berkeley, Calif., and Portland, Ore. are among a handful of cities or areas that have issued bans on polystyrene foam.
The Portland ban, which covers only polystyrene foam containers for prepared food, was passed by the city council last January, but won't take effect until next year. The ban is the product of grass-roots efforts to reduce the pileup of polystyrene waste, says Bruce Walker, program recycling manager for the city. A recyling plan was considered, but the proposal from area plastics manufacturers was ``too little, too late,'' he says.