Introduction to EPS Recycling

Can EPS Be Cost-Effectively Recycled?

REB Images, Getty Images

EPS is controversial

EPS is among most hotly debated materials when it comes to recycling. The material itself, composed mainly of air, is highly versatile, effective in reducing product damage, and cheap. But those same properties make it costly to recycle because it takes up a lot of space. Additionally, that light weight makes it easily swept away in the wind or water, where it adds to the problem of ocean plastic.

No surprise, it has been banned in over 100 municipalities in a dozen U.S. states and including New York City. The New York ban was reversed in September 2015, when it was lifted by the court, in response to a coalition of EPS producers and local New York business owners. In 2017, New York reinstituted its EPS ban, after it was determined by the city to be impossible to recycle economically.

The good news is that EPS can be recycled, although the economics can be precarious. Let's take a closer look.

What is EPS?

There are two types of EPS: expanded and extruded polystyrene. Polystyrene itself is a form of plastic, a polymer that can be extruded (think Styrofoam®) or expanded.

The food service industry is a major user of this product, which makes strong, protective and insulating trays, cups and containers. These properties also allow it to be a preferred packaging material for product protection in shipping.

What are the attributes that make it attractive as packaging?

Kim Holmes is the director of recycling for SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association. She explained the upside of EPS to The Balance: “EPS is an attractive material for product packaging for a number of reasons. EPS is strong, yet lightweight.

It is a very efficient insulator, and its structure offers excellent product protection from impact damage. It delivers this broad range of performance while also being a very cost competitive material. It uses significantly less energy and water to manufacture than paper alternatives.”

Why are recycling rates so low?

Ironically, the same virtues that make EPS popular also make it a challenge to recycle: namely, its low density, which can make closing the loop very costly. According to the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers, EPS is 98 percent air, which, when contained in bulky, hard plastic shapes, can become remarkably expensive to transport.

“EPS is a very recyclable and desirable material. However, the collection of EPS can be a major challenge as the product is very light,” says Holmes. “Those companies that have been successful in recycling EPS have created a collection system in which the EPS is shipped over short distances to a facility where material can be aggregated and either compressed or densified.”

After the material is compressed, it becomes much more cost- and time-effective to transfer it over long distances to be recycled and reused. Density is not the only issue, though.

Cleanliness has been an ongoing problem in EPS recycling. The material must be free of any contaminants before being compressed, or it creates quality issues for future end users. 

Partnering is important

Although recycling opportunities for EPS are limited, the material can be recycled effectively. According to a recent report in Packaging Digest, 38% of EPS was recycled in 2016.

“Once the collection and consolidation piece is figured out, EPS recycling is fairly straightforward and there are a number of large-scale success stories in EPS recycling,” says Holmes. As an example, she points to SPI member Dart Container Corporation, which reprocesses collected foam at eighteen recycling centers across the country and partners with communities to provide additional foam recycling opportunities.

To read more about Dart Container and its approach to recycling, click here.

Major brands look for other packaging alternatives

Major brands such as Mcdonalds and Target are looking to other alternatives to EPS packaging not because it is not effective as a cost effective packaging material, but because of concerns related to the frustrations of customers in trying to recycle it, its implications for ocean plastic and the economics of recycling for businesses such as Target. As a company official explained to Packaging Digest:

It’s also a big issue in our distribution centers because a lot of product that gets sent to stores is taken out of the box and hung, like a mirror or a frame. But then the polystyrene has got to go back to the distribution centers and there’s a lot more than you would imagine. It’s just enough to be a problem but not enough to invest in densifiers.

The issue remains complicated. Considerations range from the sustainability impact of potentially more product damage and its related carbon footprint and economic cost on one side of the debate if EPS packaging is not used, to the sustainability dilemma of ocean plastic and solid waste generation resulting from using EPS, on the other.