A group of 18 European players in the EPS value chain - raw materials producers, packaging manufacturers and recyclers - have thrown themselves behind an initiative aimed at rehabilitating the reputation of expanded polystyrene, or EPS. As a material that is composed of only 2% polystyrene and 98% air, EPS has been wrongly vilified by the public, said the campaign organisers.
EPS is inherently resource efficient and helps to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions during transportation. It is also 100% recyclable—a fact that is often lost in the public debate. Across Europe, there are many small and medium-sized companies that specialise in recycling EPS.
“We fully support efforts to reduce pollution and are doing our part by investing in waste collection, recycling and increasing the use of recycled materials,” said Sven Heppes, spokesman of the campaign. “A variety of recycling options, combined with the fact that EPS packaging generally consists of a single polymer, make EPS one of the most recyclable packaging materials available.”
He added: “At the same time, we want to make sure that decision-makers also understand the broader economic, social and environmental benefits of EPS packaging.”
Next to its thermal insulation and shock absorption properties, EPS packaging offers good protection against moisture and is therefore commonly used as packaging for electronics and other breakable or sensitive products. It is also widely used in bicycle, ski and snowboard helmets, children’s car seats and life vests.
While the advantages of EPS easily acknowledged, the end of life can present challenges - one of the reasons EPS has been a source of debate in cities around the world, and something that has even led to its use being banned in, for example, New York. Food residues and odours are difficult to remove from used polystyrene. Many municipal recyclers will not accept it. Transporting the waste can be expensive because of its volume to weight ratio. Also, as EPS contains only a small amount of polymers, recyclers end up mostly paying to ship air. Compacting the material - mechanically, chemically or thermally - on site can offer a solution.
None the less, as the Smart Packaging Campaign makes clear, EPS can be recycled over and over again. Currently, many EPS production facilities offer collection points where material can be dropped for recycling. As the EPS recycling infrastructure improves, it will become easier for consumers and businesses to recycled their EPS waste. The upcoming EU legislation on recycled content packaging, recyclability and the landfill ban will contribute to this.
The dilemma is a familiar one: EPS packaging offers sustainability gains through the lightweight, non-toxic protection provided against product damage and spoilage. Yet its use also inevitably results in disposal issues that must be better managed for EPS to be truly considered a sustainable choice.