EPS foam, otherwise known as Sytrofoam, is the packaging of choice for the Life Science industry to ship its products all over the world. The material is perfect for shipping temperature sensitive products; it is light, relatively inexpensive and incredibly insulating. Yet, this material is shrouded in controversy as it is hazardous to produce, not easily recycled and in most cases ends up in a landfill or worse littered in our oceans or in our city streets. This sad fact has prompted many biotech companies to start thinking about their packaging waste and innovate in areas of reduction, recycling and reuse. One method companies are using to divert EPS coolers from the trash are “take back” programs; where the company will actually pay for researchers to ship their coolers back to them for reuse. These programs are great because take the burden off of the researcher to find a way to responsibility dispose of the packaging.
New England Biolabs has the longest running take back program in the industry, spanning 3 decades. Shawn Giles, New England Biolabs Shipping Manager says “NEB provides a postage paid return label attached to all of our EPS boxes. Our customers simply remove the gel pack, tape the box closed and mail back to us for reuse. The cost of the return is more than buying a new box, but NEB feels that this is a small price to pay for customers who may not have a recycling program at their facility.” They even have an advertisement from back in the 90’s showing a beat up EPS cooler that has been reused as many as 10 times. Sigma Aldrich has a very similar program except that their foam coolers come in a cardboard box. All the researcher has to do is take the ice pack out, flip the box inside out revealing a paid shipping label and then send it back. In addition to NEB and Sigma Aldrich, Promega has a take back program as well. On their blog page, PromegaConnections, they reveal that the motivation for this program was because, at the time they started their program, many customers did not have access to EPS recycling facilities. They go onto say that this is changing as more institutions and municipalities partner with local EPS recyclers.
These programs, however, are not perfect. Return rates are generally low, around 30% and they are expensive to maintain. Some even contend that shipping these boxes back and forth is even worse for the environment because of the CO2 footprint. What is important is that these progressive companies realize the impact EPS has on the environment and are taking steps towards lowering that impact. In my next article we ask, Why even use EPS foam?