If you were asked to list the most popular recyclable plastics, you would probably include soda bottles, milk jugs and polystyrene. While soda bottles (polyethylene tetraphthalate) and milk jugs (high-density polyethylene) may seem most obvious to top the list, the protective packaging (expanded polystyrene or EPS) that cushions sub-assembly parts and televisions is reportedly gaining ground in the recycling industry.
Equipment manufacturers (OEMs) recycle the largest amount of white foam packaging but consumers have been pitching in during holiday collection drives and permanent drop-off sites. Mail service shops are supporting reuse efforts by taking back polystyrene loose-fill packaging peanuts.
"Everyone is familiar with municipal plastics recycling programs but to make foam packaging recycling a reality, we had to set up a different infrastructure that focuses on collecting the largest amounts of material," said Betsy de Campos, the director of environmental affairs at the Association of Foam Packaging Recyclers (AFPR), which includes manufacturers and recyclers of EPS packaging. "We have established nearly 100 more collection locations nationwide. To do this, we put aside all the hype, built an effective infrastructure and have given businesses and consumers the opportunity to recycle EPS."
As a result, the recycling rate for post-consumer EPS protective foam packaging reached 10.9 percent in 1993, making the material the third most recycled plastic product, according to a R.W. Beck survey.
The 1993 National Post-Consumer Plastics Recycling Rate Study reported that 23.3 million pounds of EPS packaging were collected in 1993, which is 2.5 million pounds more than in 1992. With 213 million pounds of virgin EPS produced in 1993, AFPR members recycled 13 million pounds.
More than half of the EPS collected by AFPR members is ground into dimesized pieces and used in new packaging. The suppliers of raw materials, in conjunction with AFPR members, have developed a recycled-content foam packaging resin made from the collected post-consumer materials.
EPS is also being reprocessed into durable products. For example, the National Polystyrene Recycling Co. and Dart Container Corp. have started to reprocess EPS into pellets for manufacturing various consumer goods ranging from toys to automobile accessories. Free-Flow Packaging has developed a proprietary process that goes beyond reuse of packaging peanuts and reprocesses the plastic into 100 percent recycled content loose-fill.
Because a large amount of EPS packaging comes from corporations (see bar graph), AFPR has established a program to match their recycling needs with the Association of Foam Packaging Recyclers collection sites. For example, Xerox Inc. has established a foam recycling system that backhauls expanded polysty rene from its distribution centers nation wide. In addition to recycling the used EPS from plant assembly parts, delivery personnel collect used EPS from customers and return it to central Xerox distribution centers.
Truck availability and the distance between an AFPR member and the Xerox distribution center determines who will backhaul the EPS from the distribution centers to an AFPR collection site.
Xerox has reported benefits, including greater efficiency at distribution warehouses and lower disposal costs. "By recycling foam we have decreased the number of dumpsters that we use by more than 50 percent," said Mick Bizzaro, transportation manager for Xerox. "Now that's a considerable amount of money that we're saving."