Reduce, Reuse and Recycle: Foam Coolers

12447811_IMG_3195Life science enzymes, cells and reagents are often temperature sensitive, and you need products that arrive cold and ready to work. This means that packaging often requires dry ice, gel ice and foam coolers—challenges for maintaining a small carbon footprint and environmentally responsible shipping and packaging program.

In the last few years, we have moved to unbleached shipping boxes, started using sustainably harvested materials and biodegradable and recyclable air pouches to offer product protection while minimizing negative environmental impact.

Over two decades ago, we initiated a send-back program to return our foam coolers for resuse, keeping many shipping containers out of landfills because our customers had no local access to Styrofoam® (expanded polystyrene foam) recycling facilities. However, times have changed, and many institutions and municipalities have begun providing local foam recycling services. A recent life-cycle analysis found that mailing a cooler can actually release more carbon than it takes to generate a new cooler. So, we now encourage local reuse and recycling.

How can you find out about local foam recycling and reuse options?

First, check with your institution. Harvard University, the University of Washington, and the University of Texas at Austin all have established or pilot programs for expanded polystyrene recycling.

If your institution doesn’t have a program, see if your there is a local drop-off recycling center near you. If there is not, mail-back recycling may be an option.

Reuse is always an option. Foam coolers make great ice buckets for your lab, and they cost nothing against your grant.

Reducing the number of foam coolers required is the ultimate goal. Consolidating orders to reduce the number of shipping containers helps, as does an on-site stocking and inventory program like Helix® freezers and cabinets.

If you have other suggestions for ways to reduce, reuse or recycle foam containers, leave a comment below.

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Michele Arduengo

Michele Arduengo

Supervisor, Digital Marketing Program Group at Promega Corporation
Michele earned her B.A. in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and her PhD through the BCDB Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA where she studied cell differentiation in the model system C. elegans. She taught on the faculty of Morningside University in Sioux City, IA, and continues to mentor science writers and teachers through volunteer activities. Michele supervises the digital marketing program group at Promega, leads the social media program and manages Promega Connections blog.


  1. I’m sorry to hear that you’re ending your recycling program. You were one of the few remaining heros. Just one question. What is the purpose of changing to gray foam? Our local recycled only accepts white foam, so now your reduced carbon footprint theory no longer works.

    1. Hi Brian,
      I do not know what the advantage of the gray foam is, but I will ask and see if I can find out from the people who run our sustainability program. I assume that it has something to do with keeping as many items as unbleached as possible, but I am not sure. Thank you for your interest and feedback.

      1. Thanks, Michele. I’ll be interested to find out the answer. I just feel it’s a little disingenuous to claim that you are reducing your carbon foitprint and also to say that it will be easy for us to recycle the boxes when if fact if may be impossible.

        1. Hi Brian,
          I understand your frustration. The sustainability folks got back to me and indicated that the switch was made to Neopore (gray foam) for the smaller boxes because it had better insulating properties, requiring less dry ice. They were told that it was recycled in the same manner as the EPS. They are going to inquire again about its recycling properties in response to your comment. When I know more, I will post another response.

          1. Thanks, Michele. My local recycler is Foampack Industries in Springfield, New Jersey in case you want to check with them. They are the people who told me they only accept white foam.

          2. Hi Brian,
            The new foam should be recyclable at your local facility. Our sustainability group is going to reach out to Foampack Industries to see if we can resolve the issue.

  2. I know the issues and reason have been addressed why you are discontinuing the program, however, I confess I am disappointed that Promega is discontinuing this. Luckily, for the short term, we do have a company that takes our Styrofoam. However, places that will take Styrofoam are very far and few between and I believe this is going to lead to a lot more Styrofoam getting landfilled.

    1. Hello Chuck,
      Thank you for your feedback. We do forward the comments we receive up the pipeline, and we appreciate that you took the time to let us know your concerns.
      Michele @promega

    2. Hi Chuck, I agree with you. Another problem is that they switched to gray styrofoam, which our local recycler won’t accept.
      Brian Duncan
      Princeton University

  3. Has anyone tried using EPS coolers for building, similar to Faswall blocks? Coolers could be packed with sand, stacked 2 or 3 high as a footing wall, and covered with lathe/mortar. I’m thinking they would work better if the lids were left off. XPS and EPS sheets are both used under load-bearing footing walls, but would the coolers’ EPS have sufficient bearing strength to serve as a footing wall? Thanks.

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