In this feature interview, we sat down with the President of Styro-Go, Robert Herritt, to talk about the company's unique mobile polystyrene recycling service. In the interview, Robert discusses how Styro-Go was founded, the importance of sustainability and developing a circular economy for plastics, and the challenges his company has faced and overcome along the way.
For those not familiar with your company how do you describe what you do?
We’re a mobile polystyrene recycling company. Or for the public who may not be familiar with the term, we recycle Styrofoam. We operate across Alberta and BC, including Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland all the way out to Chilliwack.
Despite the misinformation around polystyrene, it is in fact recyclable. What are your views on the negative reputation of Styrofoam and can you give us some insight into the recycling process?
Styrofroam absolutely, 100% can be recycled. It’s a fallacy that has been promoted by different stakeholders. With more and more recognition of the need to move to a circular economy model versus a linear model by the general public, it has become obvious that not recycling polystyrene is an issue.
Rather than put the necessary infrastructure in place to recycle Styrofoam at scale, it’s easier to label it as not recyclable or not worth recycling. That out of sight/out of mind strategy is coming to an end with a growing public awareness pushing municipalities to address the issue through EPR and other policies.
When did you recognize the business opportunity around polystyrene recycling?
I was a project manager for a multi-family builder. I was at a large 400-unit site that took 7 years to complete. I was sitting on-site one day and watching mountains of Styrofoam go to the dump and I’ve always had an environmental streak – I’ve always been an advocate for the environment.
I asked myself, “If it has a recycling symbol on it, why isn’t anyone recycling it?”. So, I did some research and discovered “oh there’s no money in it”. That’s why no one’s doing anything with it. I said to myself, ‘there has to be a way to make this work. If no one else is going to do it, I guess I will.’
Right away I noticed that the recycling industry is almost completely hub and spoke, where trucks bring recyclable materials to a central processing facility. That works really well, but it doesn’t work at all for Styrofoam. The properties that make Styrofoam so wonderful for use (moisture resistant, lightweight, safe for food) is also why it’s not good to put in the ground.
I took it as a challenge. It took me about 18 months to do research and put a business case together.
I’ve done project management before and you start with the end result and reverse engineer it back.
Can you give some insights into the development of your mobile polystyrene system?
To put a recycling machine on a truck isn’t a big stretch to figure out and in fact in Canada there have been about 15 attempts to do that in the past 10 years and more than that in the past 20 years if you include the US. No one was able to make it work.
At the time I launched Styro-Go the economy in Alberta was suffering. I had to make a system that was lean and mean enough to operate successfully in this environment. We thought, once we figured out how to exist here, Ontario and BC will be easier.
What were the challenges other attempts faced that you were able to overcome?
My competition is landfill which is typically cheap because they charge by the tonne and Styrofoam is incredibly light.
The other challenge was that most people, even in the industry, had no clue as to the scale of the Styrofoam issue. Large companies have compactors so they just don’t see it, or their garbage was collected frequently enough that they miss the scale altogether. It was this out of sight out of mind attitude.
To prove the case to big companies, there has to be a way to track it and be accountable. You can’t just show up and say ‘Hey we’ll do our best’. If you want to sign up the big companies, the big boys. They want hard numbers. I was even able t do the math and figure out net carbon reduction for clients, greenhouse gas reductions, etc.
After polystyrene is recycled, what can it be used for?
The technology to recycle Styrofoam is very sound and has been around for 20 years. Unlike some other forms of recycling that have evolved. Nothing has changed in two decades until recently. The current technology ensures the material is densified for transport. We accumulate enough to we have 50-55,000 lbs then we export it to a couple of companies that can manufacture it to make it look like almost anything. I guarantee virtually every Canadian will have something in their house containing recycled polystyrene. It could be mouldings, cabinetry, backsplash, the moulding around your computer screen. They can make it look like almost anything.
Styro-Go fills a vital link in the recycling food chain. For most materials the challenge isn’t the collection phase but how to recycle it, or recycle it better. Except for Styrofoam- the technology for recycling is pretty solid, it needs updating to be more versatile. For effective Styrofoam recycling the challenge is all about the collection.
So while we currently work with the offshore recyclers, we are very excited to work with Pyrowave and GreenMantra who are providing vital updating to recycling technology- but the main issue still remains- how to collect Styrofoam at a large scale in a cost effective way. Styro-Go is the vital link to connect the loop to enable cost effective collection of Styrofoam for recycling.