In today’s environmentally-conscious world, the topic of recycling is more relevant than ever. One material that has been at the center of many debates is Expanded Polystyrene (EPS). Common misconceptions have led many to believe that EPS is non-recyclable. However, recent revelations are shedding light on the truth.
EPS: A Misunderstood Material
For years, expanded polystyrene (EPS) has been branded as a non-recyclable material. This misconception has been fuelled by a lack of awareness and misinformation. But the truth is, EPS is not only recyclable but has been recycled at significant scales across the globe.
A Turning Point: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Revelation
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a renowned entity in the sustainability sector, recently reclassified EPS insulated and protective packaging. This decision was based on substantial government data showcasing impressive EPS recycling rates worldwide.
In January 2023, the Danish EPS Association presented global EPS recycling data to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This data revealed that post-consumer EPS packaging recycling rates exceeded 35% in regions like the EU (including the UK), Japan, and South Korea. These figures indicate that EPS packaging has been globally recycled at scale since at least 2018.
Following a meeting with the Danish EPS Association in February 2023, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation confirmed that if the data provided by the EPS industry is accurate, EPS insulated and protective packaging indeed meets the definition of ‘recyclability in practice and at scale.’ This is a significant acknowledgment, given that the data suggests EPS recycling rates surpass 30% in regions representing over 400 million people.
Key Insights Into EPS Recycling:
- Government reports have documented that EPS post-consumer packaging has been recycled at significant scales in the EU, Japan, and South Korea since 2018.
- The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has acknowledged the data proving that EPS insulated and protective packaging is recycled at scale globally.
- As per the Plastics Initiative 2023 Recycling Rate Survey, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation no longer considers EPS insulated and protective packaging as non-recyclable.
- Recycling rates for EPS post-consumer packaging are approximately 40% in the EU, over 30% in North America, and above 50% in countries like Japan, China, and South Korea.
EPS Recycling: A Global Movement
EPS recycling is not limited to a few countries. It’s a global practice. In 2022, EPS was recycled in at least 38 countries, representing a population of over 4.2 billion people across four continents. This widespread recycling showcases that EPS exceeds the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s criteria by a significant margin.
Back here in Australia, we have seen the development of several post-consumer EPS packaging recycling efforts, with retailers, local councils and the local communities actively participating in these initiatives. One of the most notable efforts in this direction is the StyroCycle recycling scheme.
StyroCycle: A Notable Initiative in Australia
Origin and Purpose
StyroCycle was launched by Expanded Polystyrene Australia (EPSA), an initiative of EPSA members who manufacture expanded polystyrene. The primary goal of this scheme is to recycle clean EPS and use it to produce new products, such as building insulation. This initiative was born out of the industry’s commitment to the National Recycling Targets and the need for a viable solution to recycle EPS, especially since there are no council or government-backed kerbside schemes for this waste type.
Commitment to Sustainability
Simon Pickett, the President of EPSA, emphasized the organization’s dedication to reducing EPS waste in landfill. He highlighted the 100% recyclability of EPS and its potential for repeated recycling. The vision for StyroCycle is to foster an effective circular economy, where EPS is continually reused, reducing its environmental footprint.
StyroCycle’s primary focus is on recycling polystyrene packaging from households and small businesses, such as packaging for electrical appliances. A significant advantage of this scheme is the prompt processing of the collected waste, ensuring that it isn’t stored for extended periods. There is also a focus to ensure that new products created, are manufactured locally, further supporting the Australian economy.
In addition to this, another pivotal focus area for StyroCycle is facilitating commercial recycling agreements for entities with substantial EPS volumes. Recognizing the need for efficient recycling solutions for larger commercial clients, StyroCycle steps in to bridge the gap. The initiative assists commercial clients by connecting them with one of their member manufacturers, ensuring that post-consumer packaging waste is effectively recycled and repurposed.
This addition emphasizes StyroCycle’s commitment to both individual and commercial recycling needs, highlighting their comprehensive approach to EPS recycling.
Types of EPS Accepted
The scheme accepts all non-contaminated EPS, including packaging for appliances, clean white polystyrene fruit and vegetable boxes, uncontaminated EPS from construction sites, and bean bag beans.
Currently, StyroCycle operates with two manufacturers across four sites in Victoria and South Australia. They anticipate the addition of eight more sites across various Australian states by 2024. Furthermore, collaborations are underway with potential drop-off points, including councils, retailers, waste transfer stations, and businesses with high EPS waste volumes.
What products are made from recycled expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging?
Post-consumer packaging, a material once destined for landfills, is transformed into innovative building products like EPS waffle pods. These waffle pods, which can incorporate up to 50% recycled material, are a testament to our member manufacturers’ commitment to sustainability without compromising on quality. Notably, these pods possess an R-value— a measure of thermal resistance—of up to R1.0, designed to ensure that buildings remain energy-efficient. By utilising recycled content in waffle pods, we not only repurpose waste but also contribute to the energy efficiency of the structures they become a part of, demonstrating that recycled materials can stand at the forefront of eco-friendly construction innovation.
The journey of Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) recycling is a testament to the power of knowledge, collaboration, and innovation. From being misunderstood as a non-recyclable material to now being recognized and recycled at a global scale, EPS’s story is a beacon of hope for sustainable practices. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s acknowledgment, coupled with the impressive recycling rates across continents, underscores the material’s potential to contribute to a circular economy.
Australia’s proactive approach, exemplified by initiatives like StyroCycle, showcases the nation’s commitment to sustainability and the broader vision of a waste-free future. As consumers, businesses, and governments continue to prioritize recycling, the myths surrounding EPS are not only debunked but replaced with tangible actions and results. The future of EPS recycling looks promising, and it serves as a reminder that when we come together with a shared purpose, we can transform misconceptions into milestones.
Want to learn more about the recyclability of EPS? Learn about how it is recycled here.