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Widening the Polystyrene Foam Recycling Stream

A few companies are working to widen the stream, including food and beverage packaging manufacturer Dart Corp. and plastic and chemicals producer NOVA Chemicals.

A big problem with recycling polystyrene (PS) foam was, until recently, that processors couldn’t load enough of the material on a truck to make it worth shipping.

It’s very lightweight, yet bulky. So the material takes up a lot of volume relative to its weight than other, denser materials. That problem may have been addressed by fairly new technology that can densify it, allowing 40,000 pounds of foam can to be loaded onto a single trailer. The remaining obstacle for recyclers is finding a way to collect enough foam to take advantage of densification’s benefits.

A few companies are working to widen the stream, including food and beverage packaging manufacturer Dart Corp. and plastic and chemicals producer NOVA Chemicals. These companies are engaging in efforts including promoting curbside recycling and drop-off programs and designing specialized bins for this hard-to-recycle material.

NOVA collaborates with an environmental group, plastics processors and schools to collect more expanded polystyrene (EPS). (EPS is fused with steam, but offers the same applications as standard PS foam). In Monaca, Pa., one of two sites where NOVA processes the material, their outreach has resulted in a bump from 194 recovered pounds in 2013 to 18,307 pounds in 2015. The company is on target for similar or higher numbers in 2016, says John Feraco, NOVA’s director of expandable styrenics.

Can PS foam generate cash?

Some of Dart’s work includes linking small drop off sites to larger ones, and collaborating with the industry to award grants to recyclers who want to take in PS foam.

“There is money in it for them, depending on the quality of material they produce and how efficient they are at capturing it,” says Michael Westerfield, Dart’s corporate director of recycling programs.

Dart actually works with MRFs to capture and sort PS foam.  

With the manual process the material is put in a chute, drops down, and is ground. It then goes on to a densifier. As the company worked to fine-tune the process, Dart and its collaborators made a discovery enabling MRFs to minimize labor.

“We learned you can transport foam by air by blowing it through a tube connected to the grinder. So rather than be fed direct … it travels through the tube and into the hopper where it accumulates,” says Westerfield “When the hopper is full a sensor turns on the densifier, which generates compacted logs.”

The technology and setting up infrastructure come with a cost, which is why Dart helped implement grant programs. And the Food Service Packaging Institute’s Foam Recycling Coalition raises money to award grants to communities to take in PS foam through drop off or curbside programs.

Bringing more players into the picture

NOVA is encouraging EPS recycling in parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania where it works through partnerships, including with grassroots environmental organization Pennsylvania Resources Council (PRC) and Appliance Warehouse who processes the material.

People drop off EPS and other hard-to-recycle items at PRC’s recycling events, and the foam goes to Appliance Warehouse where it is densified it and sent to processors that convert it into products.

“PRC is a big part of informing the public of the availability of recycling; that’s a key role we could not do ourselves,” Feraco says. “Appliance Warehouse provides a technical processing step. By combining our efforts it’s a more robust outcome.”

NOVA also provides EPS recycling bins to local schools that the company designed and also sells on line. The system just for collecting PS foam includes a removable polymer bag in a metal container that is easily replaced when full. NOVA collects the foam, transports it to their plant in Monaca and densifies it. 

“We are looking to bring new equipment to Monaca to process and densify more foam. So we continue to grow opportunities in our area,” says Feraco.

There are challenges to work out

Bins need to be emptied regularly to get EPS into the stream fast, which doesn’t always happen, and more equipment needs to get into the hands of operators to densify and ship it for conversion.

Then there is the issue of contamination. The wasted material can come into the stream labeled, painted or covered in food.  Omni, a Dart affiliate, is working on this, having just collaborated with plastics recyclers in Indianapolis to build a facility designed to process dirty PS foam to be recycled into quality products.

Public education could go a long way, believe stakeholders. 

“People want to recycle foam, which is one big reason we are growing.  A lot of individuals and businesses are happy to bring foam to us,” says Feraco.

“But a lot don’t realize they can recycle it. So beyond addressing technical and infrastructure issues, it’s just making them aware that they can.”

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