Exchange Network for Expanded Polystyrene Bio-Shipping Containers

EPA Grant Number: SU835512
Title: Exchange Network for Expanded Polystyrene Bio-Shipping Containers
Investigators: Benson, Craig H.
Current Investigators: Benson, Craig H. , Markley, Andrew , McCall, Benjamin , Baumann, Emily , Kooistra, Frank , Ottmann, Jared , Walsh, Jenna , Budke, Katelyn , Valko, Phil , Bradshaw, Sabrina
Institution: University of Wisconsin - Madison
Current Institution: University of Wisconsin - Madison , University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign , Washington University
EPA Project Officer: Packard, Benjamin H
Phase: I
Project Period: August 15, 2013 through August 14, 2014
Project Amount: $14,999
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet (2013) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Pollution Prevention/Sustainable Development , P3 Challenge Area - Chemical Safety , P3 Awards , Sustainable and Healthy Communities


The objective of this project is to create an exchange network for expanded polystyrene shipping containers used in the biotech community at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and in the Madison-area biotech industry. Biological research depends on the timely delivery of a large variety of temperature sensitive reagents in expanded polystyrene (EPS, aka Styrofoam) containers. Thousands of these bio-shipping containers are delivered in the biotech industry everyday, and nearly all have a single use -- the lifecycle ends when the container is opened and the EPS container shifts from a critical asset (protective package) to a liability (waste). Our objective is to turn “waste” bio-shipping containers back into assets by planning and implementing a pilot bio-shipping container reuse program with local suppliers and users in the Madison area.

Typical bio-shipping containers are comprised of three components: an exterior cardboard box, an interior EPS container, and freezer gel packs.  The box and gel packs are readily recycled or reused. However, recycling the EPS container is cost prohibitive. Consequently, virtually no bio-shipping containers are recycled, resulting in significant waste and lost value in the biotech industry. No systematic and sustainable method to re-use bio-shipping containers currently exists.  However, with some ingenuity, the EPS shipping containers could be reused many times in their current form, adding value to the container, reducing costs to the biotech industry, and preventing wasteful disposal.


A pilot exchange program will be developed where EPS containers at UW-Madison research buildings will be collected and delivered to local biotechnology suppliers for use in their shipping operations. In Phase I, we will conduct a survey of shipping suppliers to determine the technical requirements of shipping operations, identify roadblocks to using recovered shipping containers, and compile information on the locations of shippers and receivers across the country. Using that information we will conduct experiments to address the concerns of the shippers, particularly the safety of reusing containers for new shipments. If necessary, we will design new line of standardized shipping containers that are more durable, more easily washed, and used interchangeably by shipping departments.  Finally, we will develop a pilot exchange program in Phase I based on what we have learned, and implement the program during Phase II.

Expected Results:

Creating an exchange network for shipping containers will provide cost savings, reduce waste, and promote sustainability within the biotechnology industry. Success of this program can divert thousands of EPS containers from landfills each year. A successful pilot program will serve as a model for a nationwide program and will serve as an example of how academic institutions and local industry can collaborate to promote sustainability.

Publications and Presentations:

Publications have been submitted on this project: View all 2 publications for this project

Relevant Websites:

Phase 2 Abstract

Progress and Final Reports:

  • Final Report
  • P3 Phase II:

    Exchange Network for Expanded Polystyrene Bio-Shipping Containers  | 2015 Progress Report  | 2016 Progress Report  | Final Report