At UNC Charlotte, Styrofoam turns into gold. It’s not literal gold. The recycling team has an innovative way to condense ceiling-high Styrofoam to the size of a shoebox, which saves space, time and money.
Every piece of Styrofoam on campus, most of which comes from the thousands of excited students moving into the dorms with their decorations, lamps and new appliances. The mini-fridge and lava lamp go in, and the Styrofoam packaging always comes out.
Multiply that by 100 and the result is 900 pounds of Styrofoam with nowhere to call home.
The University’s recycling team used to cram it into their office warehouse. To stop the Styrofoam monster from growing, they paid a truck once a year to haul it. Hayley Kozma, recycling supervisor, and Kelly Freshcorn, recycling and universal waste operations manager, knew there had to be a better solution.
Kozma and Freshcorn went to work. Kozma was in contact with another North Carolina university and was introduced to a solution: a Styrofoam densifier. Instead of sky-high piles of Styrofoam, it could be compacted into bricks. Styrofoam is placed into the densifier and pulverized, then heated to become Styrofoam “sausages.” Each brick weighs roughly 45 pounds.
Rich Steele, associate vice chancellor for business services, after being presented the idea was on board to bring it to life. UNC Charlotte purchased the Styrofoam densifier in April 2022 from Recycle Tech.
All the densified Styrofoam gets recycled for unique uses by Foam Cycle.
“They’re used for tiny houses in Greensboro, North Carolina,” said Kozma. “Louis Troiano from Foam Cycle then sells them to another plant who processes it for plastic picture frames for cruise ships, plastic molding for houses and also insulation.”
So now, the space once consumed by Styrofoam is used to store recycling bins and move-in corrals.
After move-in the recycling has a lot of ground to cover throughout the academic year. Each of the 13 team members has a campus route. They manually pick up recycling from all areas. Most buildings are checked two to three times a week and outside cans are checked every day.
Then, they sort it into the proper bins, which includes removing tape, paper towels and food waste or any other non-recyclables.
“What people don’t know is that disposable coffee cups aren’t actually recyclable,” said Kozma. “It’s our job to ensure the coffee cups, among other things, are properly sorted.”
The members of the recycling crew never know what they will find on their routes. They have found old snacks, coins and even rescued possums. On home football games, recycling helps the Sustainability Office set up bins for containers and compost, as well as additional trash bins. The bags are sorted throughout the game until midnight by sustainability, recycling and student volunteers to ensure proper placement as compost, bottles and cans, cardboard and trash. They even come back the next day to finish sorting, which can take several hours.
No matter what they do, the recycling crew embraces teamwork and positive interaction.
“Recycling wouldn’t work without the team that we have. They’re fantastic,“ said Kozma. “We operate like a family and everyone is very positive, always willing to help each other.”
Freshcorn added, “Our staff works tirelessly to keep campus clean, and we find fun ways of doing it. I’d love for students to come and see what we do.”
From picking up and sorting recycling weekdays on game days, to finding innovative solutions for move-in Styrofoam, the recycling team is a key part of not only keeping UNC Charlotte clean but a great place to study, learn, hang out and everything in between.
And that is Niner gold.