Expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam has proven to be a very useful material, particularly in packaging, as it has excellent shock-absorbing qualities, which make it great for protecting goods in transit. It is also very lightweight, which reduces transit costs and carbon emissions during transport.
However, EPS packaging presents a number of challenges. Some of these include:
- EPS is one of the most common materials found in illegally dumped waste. It is lightweight, highly visible, and easily breaks down into small pieces which can be easily carried by wind and water.
- EPS takes up a disproportionately large space in landfill. This is because EPS is mostly air, and has excellent compressive strength so it does not compact well (without machinery). As a result, EPS can take up a lot of space in landfill, which can lead to higher costs for local governments and businesses.
- EPS is not currently collected through curbside recycling programs in most areas. There are a growing number of drop-off points for EPS recycling, like StyroCycle! However, the recycling options are largely fragmented at present (something we are hoping to change!).
That aside, it is a very simple material to recycle and can be recycled repeatedly into resourceful products, which is why we need to do everything we can to recycle foam packaging and divert it from landfill.
What Makes Expanded Polystyrene Packaging Easy to Recycle?
Expanded polystyrene (EPS), is often considered relatively easy to recycle due to several key characteristics:
# 1 Lightweight and Versatile: EPS is a lightweight and highly versatile material, which makes it easier to handle and transport for recycling compared to heavier plastics.
# 2 Physical Stability: EPS has excellent physical stability, meaning it maintains its shape and integrity even after repeated recycling cycles. This characteristic allows it to be recycled multiple times without significant degradation in quality.
#3 Good Insulation Properties: EPS is widely used for its excellent insulation properties, which help keep products safe and protected during transportation. These same insulation properties make it suitable for recycling, as it can be easily sorted and separated from other materials during the recycling process.
# 4 Market Demand: Recyclers prefer materials with a stable and strong market demand. EPS has a wide range of applications, such as packaging, insulation, and construction, leading to consistent demand for recycled EPS.
How Much Polystyrene Foam is Recycled Currently?
Unfortunately, the majority of expanded polystyrene foam material is not recycled at all, despite the fact that it is 100% recyclable. The Australian Packaging Convention has said that just less than 19% of expanded polystyrene foam material is recycled in the country.
This figure is not great for a developed country, especially when compared to other countries in Asia and Europe, which are doing a far better job.
Japan, for example, has an excellent recycling rate for expanded polystyrene foam material, thanks to its stable and mature market for the product. Currently, Japan is capable of recycling about 88% of its polystyrene foam and is making strides towards improving this figure even further.
Coming in on par with Japan’s impressive figures are several European countries, such as the UK, Ireland, France, Belgium, Finland and Italy. Denmark leads the charge as the best recycler of expanded polystyrene foam material, boasting an admirable 95% recycling rate.
When considering how other developed countries are performing, Australia has a fair bit of catching up to do.
Things We Need to Overcome to Increase Expanded Polystyrene Recycling
Lack of Awareness
One of the biggest challenges to overcome with recycling expanded polystyrene foam packaging is awareness. Raising recycling awareness is important because there are still surprisingly many people out there who do not realise the importance of recycling or how to do it. Moreover, many people believe that expanded polystyrene is not recyclable at all because the communication from most councils is to dispose of it in the garbage bin to avoid contamination in the recycling stream given EPS cannot be placed in the kerbside plastics bin.
Educating the general population about the recyclability of this material and the importance of proper disposal is critical. Both private and public stakeholders are required to put in every effort to inform more Australians about collection points and recycling options, which can encourage greater participation in recycling programs.
While clean expanded polystyrene is very easy to recycle, EPS that has been painted, glued or has significant levels of dirt or organic matter is difficult to recycle. When EPS absorbs contaminants, it can undergo physical and chemical changes, leading to a degradation in its structural integrity and properties. Contaminated EPS may become brittle, discoloured, or weakened, making it less suitable for recycling into new products. Contamination prevents the materials from breaking down properly and creating a clean feedstock to make new products, That is why at StyroCycle, we can only accept clean polystyrene packaging.
There are some exciting technologies that are currently being developed by companies like PS Loop in the Netherlands surrounding chemical recycling, which serve to solve the issue of contamination.
Fragmentation of Recycling Services
We touched on the impact of a fragmented recycling market earlier. A lack of infrastructure results in poor waste management practices, limited recycling facilities, reduced public awareness, inadequate policies, and insufficient market development. All of these factors contribute to lower plastic recycling rates and hinder progress toward a more sustainable and circular approach to plastic waste.
Help us tackle this by spreading the word that expanded polystyrene (EPS) is fully recyclable and can be turned into a resource such as insulation for sustainable buildings. Take action and recycle foam packaging.