Focus story by Jessie Waldheim
HOUSTON (ICIS)--Foam cups made from expanded polystyrene (EPS) often have often been thought of as unrecyclable in the US, but technology, awareness campaigns and a market for recycled product are working to change that.
"We couldn't get people to really listen to us when we first started doing this," said Michael Westerfield, corporate director of recycling programmes at EPS producer Dart Containers. "Now virtually every recycling conference I go to there's talk about foam."
The company, based in Mason, Michigan, is the largest producer of EPS cups in the world. Dart operates several recycling programmes for its direct customers, works with material recovery facilities to help them set up EPS recycling streams, and offers recycling to the general public at more than a dozen locations in the US as well as in Mexico, Canada, the UK and Argentina.
Technological advancements have made recycling EPS easier and cheaper. Densifiers, which compact the material before transport or reuse, are now designed to better accept mixed feedstocks. Modified densifiers can start automatically once the hopper is full, cutting down on labour requirements, Westerfield said.
Once compacted, the material can be sent for washing or made directly into pellets to make new products, he said.
The recycled material can be turned into a variety of products such as crown moulding, base boards and nursery pallets for flowers.
"It's a thermal plastic, so it can be recycled over and over again," Westerfield said.
It's an important raw material in the picture frame industry, even though the logistics of collecting EPS can be a challenge and the technology for recycling it requires an investment, said Richard Master, CEO of MCS Industries.
MCS, based in Easton, Pennsylvania, is one of the largest consumers of EPS scrap in the picture frame manufacturing industry, using about 15m lb (6,800 tonnes) annually, he said.
"The motivation is economic, as recycled material can cost much less, all costs in, and can be used for most, not all, of our applications interchangeably with virgin material," Master said.
To make EPS recycling successful, it needs to be brought to the masses, Westerfield said.
Towards that end, Dart has been working with material recovery facilities to help them set up EPS recycling streams and with the general public to increase awareness of the material's recyclability.
The company set up a website in February to help people learn about where to recycle EPS, where to buy or sell scrap or recycled material, and what equipment is needed to become an EPS recycler. The website had more than 3,200 visitors in March.
"Just by the website we created, it's incredible how many people are coming out of the woodwork who have an interest in foam," Westerfield said.
EPS's recyclability has encouraged its use over alternatives, he said.
US-based Chick-fil-A opted to use EPS cups instead of paper due to the material's recyclability. It was the first restaurant chain in the industry to implement a large-scale foam recycling programme, according to a statement on the company's website.
The company currently recycles the cups at 25% of its more than 1,700 locations, with goals of recycling cups at 80% of locations by the end of 2014 and 100% by the end of 2015.
Paper cups, often thought of as more environmentally friendly, have their own technological hurdles. Most are lined with wax or plastic to keep them water-tight, which makes recycling or composting them difficult due to the mixed materials.
Starbucks, the popular US-based coffee chain, has been working on an initiative to implement front-of-store recycling in all of its locations by 2015.
By 2013, front-of-store recycling was implemented in 39% of locations with 71% acceptance of its hot cups, made of paper, and 90% acceptance of cold cups. Although Starbucks continues to work towards its goal, it noted that acceptance of the hot cup had dropped slightly, according to the company's 2013 global responsibility report.
As another option to reduce cup waste, the company has been encouraging customers to use reusable ceramic mugs. Although discounts are offered to those using the reusable cups, only about 2% of the customer base has adopted them.
Starbucks recently introduce a polypropylene (PP) cup, which is both reusable and recyclable, for its hot drinks. With a $1 price-tag and a 10 cent discount offered for refilling it, the cup can pay for itself within 10 or so coffee orders and be recycled in most communities when it is worn out.
The new hot cup will need a sleeve when used, Starbucks said. The company uses post-consumer recycled paper in its sleeves at most stores as well.
Cup sleeves are one of the most accepted recyclable materials with a more than 70% acceptance rate, according to a survey commissioned by the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI).
But both paper and EPS cups have a lot of work to do before being accepted as recyclable.
Out of 62 material recovery facilities in the US and Canada, which included the 50 largest firms, the FPI survey found that less than 50% accepted post-consumer cups made of either paper or EPS in 2013. Cups were the least accepted type of food packaging at these recycling centres, according to the survey.
Out of the 50 most populous cities in the US, seven had access to EPS food container recycling and seven had access to paper food container recycling or composting, according to a June 2013 survey prepared for the American Chemistry Council (ACC).
A new initiative announced in April, the Closed Loop Fund, aims to invest $100m in recycling infrastructure projects in the US and spur public and private funding to increase recycling access. Spearheaded by Walmart, the programme already has the backing of more than a dozen of the retail-giant's suppliers.
Walmart is no stranger to EPS recycling, having instituted programmes to recycle the product in Canadian stores for commercial insulation and for picture frames in US stores.