Meet the ‘styroman’

Local recycler is a trailblazer in turning pesky Styrofoam into useful home-improvement products

A worker from Northern Recycling and Waste delivers a small mountain of Styrofoam to Sierra Waste Solutions.

A worker from Northern Recycling and Waste delivers a small mountain of Styrofoam to Sierra Waste Solutions.

Photo By Ken Smith

Unlike most people would do, Skip Caldwell smiles as a truck from Northern Recycling and Waste dumps a six-foot-high pile of Styrofoam smack in the middle of his place of business. The truckload is dwarfed by a larger white peak rising halfway to the rafters of the warehouse headquarters of Sierra Waste Solutions Inc., where Caldwell uses the substance in a way some believe is impossible—he recycles it.

Styrofoam is a name trademarked by the Dow Chemical Co. for the petroleum-based white foam more correctly known as polystyrene. Polystyrene ranks among the most hated substances by the environmentally minded, partly due to chemicals released in its manufacture, but arguably more because of issues involving its disposal. It is nonbiodegradable and takes up a great deal of space.

“I talked to Linda Herman at the city of Chico and asked her what the biggest problem in the landfill is, and she said, ‘Styrofoam, by far,’ ” recalled Caldwell of his conversation with the General Services Department’s administrative manager. “I mean, just look at it—it doesn’t weigh anything, but by volume it’s the biggest problem.”

Caldwell took Herman’s statement as a personal challenge, taking it upon himself to find an answer.

Skip Caldwell demonstrates the power of his Styrofoam-crushing machine.

Photo By Ken Smith

“I started making phone calls. Phone call after phone call after phone call, and it all led to this,” he said, pointing across the room at a bright-blue contraption with a gaping maw rising nine feet off the ground. “I call it my ‘3,000-phone-call machine.’ ”

“I [had] talked to a company in Lodi called Dart Container that makes Styrofoam cups,” Caldwell elaborated. Dart Container, in turn, contacted a nonprofit called Keep California Beautiful, he said, to whom they had given the big, blue, Styrofoam-compressing machine because it had become too small for Dart’s uses. “Dart [had given] it to them, and they gave it to us.”

Rather than just explain its function, Caldwell preferred to let the machine speak for itself.

“Let’s start with 10 pounds,” he said, wrestling a plastic-wrapped flattened sphere of the stuff—four-feet high and twice as wide—across the room, where he began chucking chunks into the machine’s opening.

“It needs to be white,” Caldwell said of the quality of the Styrofoam that goes into the machine, “and I’ll go through and remove any tape or other materials. Then it just goes in there, gets cut up a bit and drops in there to a screw that crushes all the air out of it.”

Skip Caldwell holds the final product—pieces of molding and baseboard—after the Styrofoam is recycled.

Photo By Ken Smith

The blue monster coughed for a minute as Caldwell shoved a particularly big piece in, and he laughed as it revved back up. “It doesn’t like the big pieces so much, but I do.”

Ten minutes later all that remained of the 10-pound pile was an eight-by-eight-inch-wide log roughly 24 inches long.

“I stack it up and ship it to Stockton to an outfit called Timbron International, and they do what they do to it and turn it into this,” said Caldwell, holding up a few short pieces of construction-quality molding and baseboard. “It’s 98 percent recycled Styrofoam, and this is sold to Home Depot. It’s really good for bathrooms, it resists water and has pretty much the same characteristics as wood.

“Timbron is fantastic. As far as I know they’re the only company in America that does what they do, and they do it well,” he said. “I’ve been offered more for my Styrofoam from other people, but then it goes to China, and I’d rather have it benefit American companies.”

Caldwell says his is one of only a handful of businesses statewide that densify Styrofoam.

Stacks of crushed Styrofoam awaiting a trip to Stockton manufacturer Timbron International.

Photo By Ken Smith

It seems Caldwell—who first started collecting Styrofoam last October while still waiting for the processing equipment to arrive—wouldn’t mind some competition, being more driven to make a difference than to turn a profit.

“So far, [according to] my last total, I’ve diverted about 8,000 yards of Styrofoam, which translates to 3,000 pounds, pickup by pickup,” he said, noting that the mountain of material currently filling the shop weighs only about 150 pounds.

“I do pretty good, though,” Caldwell added of the profit potential of his new venture. “I started off wondering how I was going to fill this place, and now I’m to the point of wondering how I’m going to empty it.”

Caldwell plans to hire an employee in the next few weeks and another after he expands the business’ capabilities. “I’m looking into getting some more machines so I can do shrink wrap, pallet wrap and some other types of foamed plastic.

“Everything I’ve done so far has just been word of mouth,” Caldwell said, reciting a litany of current clients including local foam, furniture and appliance companies, such as Ginno’s Appliances, as well as recyclers, a few restaurants, Chico State University and Butte College.

Caldwell invites anyone who wants to get rid of Styrofoam to bring it to Sierra Waste Solutions at 3030 Thorntree Ave. in Chico. There also are drop-off points in Paradise (Northern Recycling and Waste, 920 American Way) and Oroville (Recology, 2720 S. Fifth Ave.).