Polystyrene Recycling (EPS)

Why is polystyrene so popular?

Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is a plastic foam that is used in many industries for a wide variety of reasons. Some industries like the lightweight properties (such as delivery companies), some employ EPS for its buoyancy (such as surfboard manufacturers) and some use it for its ability to insulate heat (such as construction companies). The list doesn’t end there, EPS is very shock absorbent, which makes it perfect for the packaging and delivery industries, but also make it a key material in the design of bicycle helmets. In the music industry, many music studios have used polystyrene in their design, because it is a brilliant material for soundproofing. But what about polystyrene recycling?

If EPS, or polystyrene, if you prefer, is such a wonder material, why is it recognised as one of the hardest materials to recycle? Why, if it is used inside packages and parcels to be sent all around the world on a daily basis, is there no commonly known recycling solution for this material. To answer these questions, we are going to have to provide you with some more information. Keep reading on, you’re going to enjoy this.

Did you know: EPS is only 2% plastic, the other 98% is air!

Why do so many businesses struggle with polystyrene recycling?

There are 6 major types of plastic used in the world today, and a few minor ones too. There is PET (used for plastic bottles), HDPE (used for hard, but light plastic products, such as bleach containers), PVC (used for pipes mostly), LDPE (mostly carrier bags and food packaging), PP (super-versatile plastic, often used to make synthetic carpets, ropes or furniture) and the plastic we came here to talk about today, PS (or EPS). When you read about recycling, you will often hear about the 7 types of plastics, although number 7 actually just means ‘other’ and includes lesser used plastics such as acrylic, new bioplastics, plastics that are a combination of other plastics, polycarbonate, and essentially any plastic that doesn’t fit in to 1-6.

Of all these materials, polystyrene has the most impressive, and therefore most useful, weight-to-size ratio, consisting of 98% air. This lightness gives it the unfortunate ability to get picked up by wind as effectively, if not more so, than plastic bags, which can mean it often ends up as litter, or finding its way into water sources. To add to this, due to its brittle composition, it often breaks, and splits into smaller parts, lessening the effects of its useful packaging attributes. These small pieces that it breaks into can be a nightmare, it’s easy to admit that seeing someone picking up individual beads of EPS off the floor does not inspire great ideas of a polystyrene recycling industry. That industry does exist though, but awareness needs to grow if it will ever take off like plastic bottle recycling has.

Being light, shock absorbent and easily shaped by manufacturers is great for consumers, but proves to be a burden for recyclers. With 98% of the makeup being air, the 2% remaining plastic does not amount to much once melted, making it expensive to recycle.  Due to this, companies like ourselves have supported the development of technologies that allow polystyrene to be recycled without first being melted; we’ve supported the industry from day one, and always done our utmost to encourage businesses to find polystyrene recycling solutions, wherever they are on the globe.

Due to the emergence of polystyrene recycling technologies, the rate of recycling and volume of material being recycled is in fact, on the rise. The fact remains, however, that many businesses simply don’t know what to do with their abundance of polystyrene, and have no idea that they can recycle all of the material into valuable briquettes. Limited options for recycling means that  mountains of polystyrene are being suppressed under our landscapes, or left to float hopelessly on the oceans, being mistaken for food by all sorts of marine life. Whilst the rate of recycling is growing, the rate at which polystyrene is being produced is also growing, especially right now, while oil prices are low. It’s commonly known in this industry that when crude oil prices go down, so does recycling, as it becomes cheaper for manufacturers to make virgin plastics.

Polystyrene in the home has been an environmental crisis for decades, especially around Christmas time. Toys and gifts protected with polystyrene are enjoyed by the receivers, whilst the white foamy material is resigned to the dustbin, having been made to feel most unwelcome in the recycling bin. The same is true of polystyrene used for food; once dirty, or greasy, it is simply tossed. Usually, polystyrene recycling cannot take place with contaminated material. Due to it’s inexpensive, lightweight and strong nature, it has become the go-to packaging for kebabs, chips and other fast foods. What if there was a material that naturally decomposed, instead of sitting in a landfill until the end of time, or a material that could be recycled even if it was greasy. Surely even using yesterday’s newspaper is a better environmental decision for takeaway food than polystyrene?

In industry and packaging, polystyrene has been used for packaging peanuts for several decades, and whilst reusable, has often gone straight in the bin, destined for eternity in a landfill. Some businesses now include EPS recycling bins in their facilities, in an attempt to slowly introduce the idea that the material can be successfully recycled.

Environmental solutions, such as popcorn, or mushroom-like fungus have popped up in an attempt to replace it, but its bulk value as a virgin plastic is exceptional. For organisations looking to make environmental strides with the future in mind, polystyrene recycling has become tricky business.

Did you know: EPS has been produced for over 60 years, but only began being recycled very recently.

What is EPS / Polystyrene?

Polystyrene, sometimes known as EPS in ‘the industry’, and Styrofoam, in other parts of the world, is a plastic made from crude oil. Using a process called polymerisation (which means ‘to join’), thousands of small units of styrene, a monomer, combine forces to create polystyrene (poly comes from the Greek word ‘polus’, meaning much, many or multiple). The process generally creates small beads about 1mm in diameter. These beads are heated with steam, making the polymer expand, shrink and soften. A second reheating process, with steam again, allows for them to be shaped, in a mould, to the customer’s needs. Polystyrene recycling is a surprisingly similar process.

Polystyrene is used everywhere; without realising it, you are probably within meters of polystyrene right now. As an effective and affordable insulator, it is often used in construction, being placed inside walls to hold their heat.  Second to construction is the logistics industry, who implement the lightweight, strong and shock absorbing properties of polystyrene to protect deliveries and goods. For more delicate items, EPS is formed to create a shell that takes the energy from any knocks or drops, whereas many packages are filled with packing peanuts just to fill the empty space and stop the item from flailing around inside.

The food industry often employ polystyrene in food protection and service, due to it’s clean, light and ‘easily disposable’ nature. Psychologically, the lack of weight and strength makes disposal less objectionable to humans, and this is one reason polystyrene recycling rates are so low. As well as the lesser known uses of polystyrene mentioned early, it is also used for children’s car seats, life jackets, small boats and pizza trays.

It’s almost impossible to say how much polystyrene the earth generates and disposes of each day, and nobody tracks the data anyhow. What is known, is that due to its impressive size-to-weight ratio, polystyrene may take up to 30% of the space in a landfill, whilst only providing 0.1% of the weight. It’s often suggested that energy recovery from incineration is a better end-of-life for contaminated polystyrene than landfill, and we have to agree.

Although of course, polystyrene recycling is the optimal waste treatment, and it’s not as difficult as you’d think. In fact, you can take several chunks of polystyrene of all different shapes and sizes, and using a recycling machine which operates with steam and compression, you can mould it into briquettes. These briquettes are the perfect shape to be transported and sold to companies who need them.

Whilst the market fluctuates, you should always be able to find businesses who wish to work with recycled polystyrene, as opposed to the virgin material. Not only is it better for the carbon footprint, it’s attractive to shareholders and potential customers, many of whom now make conscious purchasing decisions that take environmental precautions into consideration.

So, how are people actually recycling polystyrene?

Well, we can only tell you what we know, and since the industry is admittedly struggling to keep tabs or controls on EPS / polystyrene recycling, we can’t tell you a lot. What we can tell you is that now, more than ever, businesses are addressing each and every part of their supply chain, their product impact and their environmental performance. One reason for this is the obvious benefits of having environmental accreditation, but another is that many really do care about how their business affects the world.

Some businesses are putting a special bin in their facility for the dry storage of polystyrene, before allowing it to build up until they have a quantity worth doing something with. Other businesses, especially those on a shared estate, or a shared unit, are splitting the cost of a shared bin that they can all use. Larger businesses, with a large output of EPS, are investing in polystyrene recycling equipment that can take all of the scraps of EPS and churn them into new briquettes. These briquettes can be sold back into the industry.

When something is new, people are sceptical, but polystyrene recycling is not new anymore. What was an emerging idea, is now a fully operating industry that has options for most businesses, and it’s vital that people use the options available to do their part for the environment and really earn their ISO accreditations.

eps-recycling polystyrene recycling palley
EPS (Expanded Polystyrene) processed through a briquette machine. This material has an EXCELLENT re-sale value. Polystyrene recycling at work.