Way to separate styrofoam from sand and soil?
February 28, 2017 2:10 PM   Subscribe

On a small beach near our place in the NW, we regularly get styrofoam pebbles deeply mixed in to the sand, dirt, and beach detritus. Does anyone know of a way to get the styrofoam out without hauling buckets full of sand, dirt, and twigs to the dump?

I'm hoping for some little miracle solution like "put the stuff in a bucket, add a little _____, and stir, and the styrofoam will rise to the top" or something. Maybe this doesn't exist but I'd like to clean up the beach and don't want to have to pick up thousands of pebbles individually or throw away hundreds of pounds of perfectly good nature stuff.

In case you're curious, the styrofoam seems to come from buoys and coolers that have been lost at sea. The glue holding the pebbles together eventually dissolves and they mix in, especially during storms. I'd rather not the local fish and birds mistake them for seeds.
posted by BlackLeotardFront to Home & Garden (7 answers total)
If the sand doesn't have a lot of larger stones and pebbles, you could run it through a sieve.
posted by hwyengr at 2:12 PM on February 28, 2017

You picture link doesn't work for me (edit: nevermind, now it's working).

Water should work in place of the _____ in your example, unless the glue remains on the styrofoam pebbles and is more dense than water.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:13 PM on February 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

Yes, seconding that water be used to separate them. Get a big tub of water add a smaller scoop of sand and stir it a bit. The styrofoam should float to the top and you can skim it off. Then you can scoop out the sand on the bottom or dump the whole thing and refill with water.
posted by soelo at 2:41 PM on February 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Okey doke. I'm gonna give this a try when I'm next near the beach, but leaving the question open in case someone has a secret technique.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:55 PM on February 28, 2017

There are specific beach cleaner machines for doing exactly this on tourist beaches. They use belt rakes/sieves which separate the sand from the contaminants based on density. They dig down into the sand and then re-lay it after passage. Some may be better than others for fine particles, but these are used to remove 1 mm to 1 cm oil blobs ("tarballs") as well, so I imagine they'd work for your Styrofoam pellets too.

Surf Rake is a common brand, but there are many others too. No endorsement of particular type. They do come in all sizes too, from bulldozer down to a unit to be towed behind an atv.
posted by bonehead at 2:56 PM on February 28, 2017

Thirding using water and letting the styro rise to the top and skimm off. Fun fact: this method is also the most efficient way to seed a pomegranate - all the skin gunk floats and the seeds sink.
posted by le_salvo at 4:57 PM on February 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think the "use water" peeps are probably on the right track, with the caveat that you may need to force water into the bottom of the bucket until the sand stops acting like a solid and starts acting like a liquid. If you can achieve a fluidized bed, the styrofoam should float right to the top.

Acetone will dissolve the styrofoam and leave the sand behind, but honestly that's a worse hazmat sitch than styrofoam particulates.

You could also dissolve it in gasoline to make field-improvised napalm, but it'd probably be too soggy to really stick to the local fascists.
posted by sourcequench at 7:46 PM on February 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

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