Recontextualising the Recyclability of Expanded Polystyrene

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It has become more important than ever for materials to be recyclable. With climate change and ESG becoming top of mind for many companies and communities around the world, the non-recyclability of materials is quickly becoming unacceptable.

Expanded polystyrene (EPS) has long been debated in terms of its recyclability, with many misconceptions surrounding the material.

Many have the erroneous belief that expanded polystyrene recycling is not possible, and so it has received a lot of negative press in this regard. However, the truth is that there is a lot that people don’t understand about EPS, which we will explore here.

Is EPS Misunderstood? 

EPS has long been branded as non-recyclable. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. EPS is indeed 100% recyclable. The only thing preventing it from being recycled as much as it should have in the past was the willingness of recycling facilities to deal with the material and also having the right capabilities to do so.

One of the complaints recyclers have about EPS is that it is very lightweight and can easily get blown around, creating a potential mess. However, if proper handling techniques and the right equipment are employed, then EPS can be recycled perfectly well.

In recent years, the rate of EPS recycling has picked up, leading to the circular economy international charity, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, reclassifying EPS as recyclable.

Previously, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation rejected the recyclability of EPS owing to it not meeting its requirement of being recycled at a rate of at least 30% in regions around the world where at least 400 million people live. In recent years, the statistics have changed, leading to the Foundation redefining EPS as recyclable in 2023.

EPS Recycling Insights

Since 2018, various government reports have revealed that EPS post-consumer packaging in the European Union (EU), as well as in South Korea and Japan, has been recycled at fairly significant scales.

This is what led the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to acknowledge that EPS is a recyclable material. Moreover, it has been shown that recycling rates for EPS are in the region of 30% in North America, over 50% in Asian countries such as South Korea, China and Japan, and about 40% across the EU.

However, while these regions have shown high rates of EPS recycling, it would be mistaken to think that it only takes place in those countries. EPS recycling has picked up globally over the last few years, with at least 38 countries, with populations amounting to about 4.2 billion people on four different continents, practising EPS recycling on a regular basis.

This means that as of 2022, EPS recycling far exceeds the requirements of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s criteria, with Australia being part of that effort. In Australia, a number of post-consumer EPS recycling efforts have been developed across the country. Those participating in such initiatives include local communities, councils and retailers.

StyroCycle has been lauded as one of the most notable players in advancing EPS recycling capability in Australia.

The Role of StyroCycle

StyroCycle has established itself as a leading EPS recycling initiative. It was initially intended to ensure that EPS be recycled to develop new products and minimise waste, thereby promoting a circular economy. StyroCycle stepped into the gap left by councils and governments that did not back curbside schemes for this kind of waste collection.

StyroCycle’s vision was to reduce the unnecessary waste produced by discarding EPS, as the EPS industry has known for many years that the material is 100% recyclable. All that was needed was to develop a system whereby EPS material could be picked up and taken to appropriate recycling facilities. StyroCycle has made significant advances in this regard, particularly with regard to the EPS produced in households and small businesses.

The new products created from the recycled EPS further serve to stimulate the Australian economy, thereby not only minimising waste but also creating value. A number of commercial recycling agreements have also been established through StyroCycle, whereby recycling solutions can be put in place for large commercial clients. With StyroCycle bridging this gap, commercial clients can now ensure that their EPS waste is recycled and repurposed on a large scale.

StyroCycle accepts all forms of non-contaminated EPS, as long as it is clean, white and free from any dirt or debris. Everything from packaging for appliances to beanbag beans is accepted and used to create new products.

StyroCycle currently works with two manufacturers that can produce new products from recycled EPS material. These manufacturers operate at sites in South Australia and Victoria. By 2024, StyroCycle aims to add an additional eight sites in other Australian states.

A number of collaborations have also been established and are underway with councils, retailers, businesses and waste transfer stations to set up drop-off points and facilitate EPS recycling on a wider scale.

To get involved in EPS recycling, contact us at StyroCycle today and find out what you can do to be a part of the expanded polystyrene recycling revolution.

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