360: Recycling Plastic #6

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Earth911′s 360 series breaks down the ins and outs of your everyday items.

It’s in our to-go boxes, our packing supplies, even in our fertilizer. Plastic #6 (also called polystyrene) is undoubtedly a pretty common material, as well as one of those mystery plastics that’s often hard to recycle.

But some cities and manufacturers are taking the confusion out of the process by initiating programs specifically geared toward polystyrene recycling, and its recycling rate continues to grow. According to a report by the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers (AFPR), more than 65 million pounds of expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging were recycled in 2007, while the number grew to 69 million pounds in 2008.

The most common form of plastic #6 is EPS. Though it is often hard to recycle, other plastic #6 products, such as cups, CD and DVD cases, are easier.

So, why should you recycle plastic #6? How can you recycle it? And what programs have been successful? Here’s everything you’ve wanted to know about recycling plastic #6.

Polystyrene is a polymer of styrene. Styrene is a petroleum by-product and the primary raw material from which polystyrene is made. Styrene, a naturally occurring substance, is present in many foods and beverages, including wheat, beef, strawberries, peanuts, coffee beans and cinnamon. Photo: Flickr/.brioso

Polystyrene is a polymer of styrene. Styrene is a petroleum by-product and the primary raw material from which polystyrene is made. Styrene, a naturally occurring substance, is present in many foods and beverages, including wheat, beef, strawberries, peanuts, coffee beans and cinnamon. Photo: Flickr/.brioso

Top 5 Reasons to Recycle Plastic #6

1. It’s good at catching air.
Because polystyrene foam is so light (comprised of 97 percent air), it is easily carried by wind and water currents to all reaches of our planet, and its unsinkable nature makes it a main component of marine debris.

2. It’s all packed up.
It is a common item in packaging, from Plastic Loose Fill (packing peanuts) to the hard-molded protective packaging that often accompanies electronics.

According to Virginia Lyle, deputy director of AFPR, all plastic peanuts have recycled content, and most shape-molded polystyrene has at least 25 percent recycled content.

3. It continues to grow.
According to AFPR, the percentage of post-consumer polystyrene foam diverted from landfills, as a result of source-reduction, reuse and recycling, increased from 0.8 percent in 1974 to 15.7 in 1997.

4. It keeps you warm.
A study commissioned by the EPS Molders Association found that EPS provides a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions when used to insulate homes in North America.

5. It’s a building block.
Post-consumer polystyrene can be used for a variety materials, including building foundations and powering biodiesel engines.

Answering the Tough Questions

1. Do city-wide polystyrene bans actually work?

Several cities and programs are against using polystyrene foam. In fact, San Fransisco initiated a ban against all food service EPS containers. However, a litter re-audit conducted by the City of San Francisco showed that while EPS litter decreased after the ban, there was an increase in other materials, such as paperboard, in the waste stream.

Depending on which side you choose, there are definitely misconceptions about the material and its benefits, drawbacks and overall affect on the waste stream. According to Mike Levy, director of Plastics Food Services Packaging Group with the American Chemistry Council (ACC), it’s really all about litter education. While cities can cut down on a specific product’s waste by mandating recycling and initiating bans, it is up to the consumer to make a difference.

Photo: Flickr/[F]oxymoron

Polystyrene foam is not easily recycled because of its light weight. However, recycling the material is an emerging market. Photo: Flickr/(F)oxymoron

2. Why don’t most curbside programs accept plastic #6 or EPS for recycling?

It all comes down to transportation. According to Lyle, the main reason curbside programs do not accept polystyrene foam is because after the material is placed in a commingled bin, scooped up on a recycling truck and transported to a facility, it becomes contaminated with dirt and other materials. Because most curbside programs do not wash the material, recyclers have a hard time with it.

However, some communities in California have initiated drop-off programs for polystyrene foam. This is easier for recyclers, because the EPS is not mixed with other materials and potential contamination is minimized.

3. Does the manufacturing of polystyrene require non-renewable petroleum products?

Yes. According to the ACC, the manufacturing of all plastics consumed about 3 percent of the total petroleum used in the U.S. in 1997, and all polystyrene product production comprised approximately .002 percent of that amount.

4. How does the manufacturing of polystyrene compare with other materials, such as paperboard?

All products require energy and water resources during manufacturing, and polystyrene is no different. According to Levy, because polystyrene foam is made of 97 percent air, it’s life cycle is quite different from other materials.

“When you look at the total life cycle from air pollution water usage, even without recycling at all, [polystyrene foam] is more environmentally friendly than heavier materials because they use more energy and create more waste,” he says.

5. What should the average consumer or household do with polystyrene waste?

While most curbside programs do not accept plastic #6 or EPS, there are several community programs that will recycle the material. A simple search on Earth911.com will pull up recyclers in your specific area. If there are no programs that fit your specific needs or are near your location, AFPR offers a mail-in program for consumers. Average shipping fees range from $1.50 to $9, based on the total packaging weight and volume. Since EPS is extremely lightweight, it can be economically shipped to a regional location.

Company and Community Spotlight

According to Levy, there are several markets for post-consumer polystyrene, including:

  • Food service products
  • Building and construction products
  • Home improvement products
  • Office and decorative accessories
  • CD cases
  • Export markets (material goes overseas to be used in recycled products or blended into virgin materials)

Several companies and large communities are making recycling plastic #6 a high priority and are developing innovative solutions and end-products for the material. Here are some highlights:

Los Angeles City

Headed up by the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation, the county is undergoing a monster recycling program and is often regarded as a pioneer in the EPS recycling industry. Partnering with local recycling companies, L.A. now accepts clean “Styrofoam® cups, containers, and packaging such as Styrofoam egg shell cartons, Styrofoam block packaging and Styrofoam clamshell packaging.” That’s huge for a city of more than 9.8 million people.

Nepco

Nepco has made recycling equipment for 18 years in Korea and has been in the U.S. market for three years. In March 2009, the company leased a building where it processes loose foam into densified pellets. This is important when applied to transporting the material.

For example, a truckload of bagged polystyrene cups equals about 1,000 pounds. If you bale those cups, you can fit 15,000 pounds onto that same truck. But if the material is densified, you can fit up to 40,000 pounds on one truck for transportation, according to Lyle.

Timbron

Founded in 1996, Timbron processes collected plastic waste and provides a closed-loop solution for it. One of the company’s coolest products is its interior molding that resembles a wood material but is made from recycled polystyrene and is sold at Home Depot. According to Levy, this product is a historical innovation using plastic #6 and is just one example of how the material can be used in construction.

Dart

While EPS curbside programs are a rarity, Dart partnered with the City of Tracy, Calif. to integrate the recycling of this material in curbside programs. The company also focuses on recycling foam lunch trays and initiated a program with a California elementary school to clean and recycle the trays into non-foodservice foam products.

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