The Basics of EPS Recycling - An Interview with Dart Container Corporation

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When sufficient quantities of EPS are generated, recycling can make sense. Simon Foale/Getty Images

Within the realm of plastic recycling, expanded polystyrene (EPS) remains one of the more controversial materials in public discussion. Because the material is 95 percent air, the reverse logistics of EPS recycling can be very expensive and thus a considerable hurdle to successfully closing the loop for recycling success.

Michael Westerfield is the corporate director of recycling programs for the Dart Container Corporation, which began working with expanded polystyrene (EPS) in the late 1950s.

Today, Dart is the world’s largest manufacturer of foam cups and creates a variety of food service containers. But Dart’s mission only begins with manufacturing foam cups; the company takes responsibility for the full life cycle of its product and as such, Dart also operates an aggressive program to decrease its carbon footprint and increase EPS recycling.

Recently, Westerfield took the time to answer a few questions about EPS recycling basics.

Q: Can you discuss the various steps in the process for recycling EPS?

A: Step 1- Collection- Here are some options:

Recycla-Pak (This is a U.S. mail-back program in which customers purchase a corrugated container from Dart that serves as a foam cup collection device as well as a shipping container). We now have sold more than 2,648 kits. Each kit holds two collection devices. For more information, please go to www.recycla-pak.com.

CARE (The Cups Are REcyclable program helps large end-users of foam foodservice products collect and compact their post-consumer foam so it can be recycled). This program has spread to fourteen states plus Canada and we now have thirty-nine participants. For more details, please go to www.dart.biz/care.

Drop-off Locations- For a list of drop-off locations operated by Dart for foam, please go to www.dart.biz/recycle.

Curbside Recycling- Dart has been leading the charge to make curbside recycling for foam efficient for cities. For a list of CA cities that offer curbside recycling for clean foam foodservice containers, please go to www.dart.biz/recycleCA.

Step 2- Densification (Compaction)- Foam is 95% air so a full 48' semi trailer of loose foam will only weigh ~1,000 lbs unless it is compacted. These special densifiers compact the foam so that 40,000 lbs will fit on a trailer.

Step 3- Pelletize- The densified foam is put into an extruder that melts the foam and extrudes it into spaghetti type noodles which are then chopped into pellets.

Step 4- Use the pellets to make new products like upscale picture frames, crown molding, pens, etc.

Q: Who id the primary supplier of your EPS recycling equipment?

A: It depends, we have 18 different facilities recycling foam in some capacity and they use different equipment.

Q: Why is recycling EPS a challenge or a controversial issue in some areas?

A: The key obstacle for recycling foam is that it is 95% air. While this results in a small carbon footprint, filling a 48' trailer with 1,000 lbs of loose foam is not economical. The solution for this challenge is densification equipment, which has improved greatly over the last 10 years in terms of price, throughput, and efficiency.

Q: For communities that want EPS recycling, what are the best first steps?

A: Find a market for your foam and then design a program that satisfies their demands.