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Expanded polystyrene players invest in resin recycling, claiming industry “game changer” ahead of INC-3

#Expanded polystyrene players invest in resin recycling, claiming industry “game changer” ahead of INC-3

EPS drop off for recycling.
(All image credits: EPS Industry Alliance).

08 Nov 2023 — Expanded polystyrene (EPS) resin producers in North America are collectively investing more than US$185 million in technologies for recycled content EPS feedstock, advancing environmental sustainability for protective packaging. 

Resin producers Rapac, Epsilyte, Styropek, Nexkemia and BASF have developed proprietary formulas that will allow EPS fabricators to incorporate a minimum of 30% recycled content in the manufacturing of many applications. 

The EPS Industry Alliance (EPS-IA) will participate in the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) third session, INC-3, as an accredited observer and member organization of The Global EPS Sustainability Alliance (GESA), Betsy Bowers, executive director of the EPS-IA, tells Packaging Insights

“GESA expects the INC-3 member states to understand the importance of recognizing recycling viability for polymer subset materials, like EPS. GESA also hopes to bring new ideas to the conversation and will be encouraging the treaty to adopt tools like Product Category Rules and Environmental Product Declarations for packaging, which emphasize the need to look at a full spectrum of environmental impacts under the umbrella of a third-party certification process,” asserts Bowers.

“This new product offering has the potential to be a game-changer for the EPS industry,” she says. “Recycled content resin will further reduce EPS’ environmental impacts with even lower energy use and a smaller carbon footprint. Despite long-standing misconceptions, EPS recycling has a strong track record that will now see even more growth.”

EPS in boxes in front of truck.Recycled content resin offers equal performance properties to virgin materials, lowering the environmental impact.Private sector pressure
Seventy-nine million pounds of EPS online capacity already serves North American markets, with projections for an additional 150 million pounds of capacity, asserts the alliance. Three of the resin producers’ recycled content products are third-party certified and some are looking at traceability technology for next-generation formula iterations. 

EPS-IA says chemistry-driven innovations have made the technology advancements possible. Recycled content resin offers equal performance properties to virgin materials, reducing the use of virgin materials and lowering the environmental impact. 

The recycled content will be used to manufacture products, including protective packaging, bicycle helmets, construction, drainage and septic aggregate. Some EPS molders have conducted successful trials with the recycled content resin and are planning to be market-ready by 2024. 

Recycled content EPS has been technically achievable for some time, but historically, end users have not been motivated to use it. EPS says that this trend is changing. With more stringent policy recommendations stemming from national governments, there is mounting pressure for the private sector to take a second look at recycled content capabilities. 

EPS resin producers are prepared to meet recycled content mandates and extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation. This commitment to developing sustainable solutions reinforces environmentally responsible EPS production and positions them well to comply with future regulations. 

EPS challenges and confusionsEPS recycling stations.Bowers says it is unknown to what extent EPS recycling is available globally, but the alliance confirmed there are 38 countries in four continents that are meeting a minimum 30% recycling rate.
The mainstay challenge with EPS is material collection due to the weight-to-volume ratios, explains Bowers. 

“This has been largely overcome in commercial waste streams with the use of densifiers that condense the material at the collection point. Because waste EPS is extremely clean, it maintains its value in recycling streams and is highly sought after by many end-use markets.”

“Ongoing procurement of EPS recyclate to make recycled content resin will be a matter of supply and demand. Other challenges facing EPS recycling circle around the concept of material bans. There needs to be careful attention to proper definitions and an effort to distinguish between different polystyrene materials, including many rigid applications such as yogurt cups,” says Bowers.

The EPS-IA executive director also says the alliance is aware of recycled content resin developments in other parts of the world, “so it is conceivable it will become more widely available. Currently, it is unknown to what extent EPS recycling is available in various parts of the world, but we have confirmed there are 38 countries in four continents that are meeting a minimum 30% recycling rate under the ISO 14021 definitions.”

“Recycling for EPS transport packaging should not be confused with polystyrene foam foodservice that typically contains high levels of food residue whereby the contamination can hinder recycling,” warns Bowers.

INC-3 will take place between November 13-19, 2023, at the UNEP Headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. 

“As we look toward INC-3, decision-makers and NGOs should take notice of this excellent news and the EPS Industry’s continued progress for increased sustainability,” says Bowers, who will attend the session. 

EPS-IA advocates for the responsible use of EPS, research-backed solutions and policies that will benefit the environment and the economy.

By Natalie Schwertheim

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