Seventeen findings on EPS

Did you know there are millions of EPS fragments lost to the environment that never get captured? Imagine the impact os this reality in the marine environment: where did these go?
Actually, only 3 million cube metres of EPS are landfilled each year, according to a French recycling company. The statistics continues and the numbers are scary.
Also the European Association of Plastics Recyclers (EPRO) estimated the consumption of EPS in Europe to be 335,000 tonnes in 2015. Of these, 290,000 tonnes were produced in Europe and 45,000 tonnes imported from outside the EU. On this total, EPRO estimates also that only 27% was recycled, 40% recovered and 33% sent to landfill.

These conclusions are explained on the most recent OCEANWISE Report on research findings following completion of the “State of the art working catalogue/database on the current solutions to recycle, reuse and repurpose”. The ambition of this report is to catalogue data to help the development of solutions to recycle, reuse and repurpose EPS and XPS.

Here, it is important to remember: these materials are 100% recyclable, which facilitates this battle. Therefore, the report says, the focus should be on eliminating its use “where there is a viable alternative” and on “improving the existing collection and recycling infrastructure”. And the essay brings good news: despite the large volumes of EPS placed on the market, “it is not a major waste stream compared to other materials such as glass, paper and other plastics”.
How did we get here? On the Household Waste Characterisation Campaign Report for the Environmental Protection Agency in Ireland, RPS Group estimated the number of EPS and XPS placed incorrectly in the Mixed Residual Waste bin and there was approximately 2.3% of this material, which is less than 1% of the overall waste.
So, how should this material be recycled? This essay reports two ways to do it: it can be reground and added back into a manufacturing process to produce eps, or; it can be compacted and then subjected to a chemical process making the resulting material suitable for production into polystyrene items.
And in this process we can actually avoid chemical processes, too. EPS and XPS can be sujected to mechanical recycle action: there are already many companies focused on selling compacting and recycling machines for post-industrial EPS waste.
The report tells us that knowing the recycling rates for this material is still a challenge for international organisations, due to the lack of verifiable data on production and waste – as we mentioned in the previous newsletter. But there are estimated numbers: According to a 2017 HELCOM report, the EPS recycling rate in Europe was 27%. However, the OCEANWISE report tells us that “this figure is unlikely to include all in-house recycling activities carried out by manufacturers, both of their own production waste (reuse) and their customers’ EPS waste (recycling)”.
It is against the lack of definitive information that the OCEANWISE reports fight.
Therefore, we share 17 findings about recycling and alternatives for this material, explained through this essay.


Difference between Compacting and Recycling
As EPS is 98% air EPS, that cannot be recycled on-site by a business, needs to be compacted to remove most of that air, prior to being transported. It can then be recycled into new products.


EPS Recyclers Database
A comprehensive database has been completed of EPS recycling operations in the focus countries (See Table 3 below). 154 recycling companies in total were found. Details of individual recycling operations are included in each of the country factsheets of the report.


EPS Recycling Rates
Up-to-date data for the recycling rate for EPS was not available at the time of publication. An average EPS recycling rate of 28% was noted from this data; however this includes significant variations (e.g. the Netherlands at 60% Vs. Iceland 0%). More recent data for some countries can be found on pages 15 and 16 of the report, however various measurement methods are in use.


XPS Recycling Rates
No figures were found for the recycling rate for XPS, as there is no mechanism to capture the reuse activities of XPS manufacturers. This finding also reflects the lack of specific XPS recycling systems or projects found.


In-house reuse and recycling activities
Much EPS and XPS reuse and recycling is carried out by EPS and XPS manufacturers in their factories, of production waste and from customer waste returned through take-back schemes.


Demand for recycled material
Demand for any recycled plastic material remains low with only 6% of recycled material currently replacing virgin demand. Most recycled EPS/XPS goes back into construction and/or insulation or low-value items such as hangers and garden furniture.


HBCDD fire-retardant was banned in 2016; however it is still found in waste EPS/XPS coming from demolition sites and must be treated prior to recycling.


EPS & XPS and Waste-to-Energy / Incineration
While some WtE operators e.g. in Denmark are happy to receive large volumes of EPS and XPS, this is not the case for many WtE / incineration plants in the focus countries.


EPS & XPS Research and Recycling Projects
There are a number of EPS/XPS research and recycling projects currently ongoing and completed within the EU. Details of these projects can be found in the report.


EPS Recycling Commitments
The major EPS manufacturers, through their representative organisation, EUMEPS, have committed to work to increase the recycling rates for EPS. EUMEPS has pledged to achieve a 46% EPS recycling rate by 2025.


Operation Clean Sweep®
This is an industry-led programme which works on minimising pellet-loss during the production and transport of EPS and XPS, to which most EPS and XPS manufacturers subscribe.


Approaches to post-industrial and post-consumer EPS & XPS waste
Different approaches have been adopted to post-industrial and post-consumer waste. As there is less infrastructure in place to capture the latter, it is at higher risk of becoming marine litter.


Different approaches taken by industries and countries
Various approaches to post-industrial and post-consumer waste have been adopted by industries and by individual countries. It’s difficult to determine if there is a correlation between the approaches taken and the recycling rates for EPS and/or XPS.


Conflicting data-sets
Diverse approaches to the collection of data and reference points lead to varying figures available for both production and recycling rates. A consistent approach is required to provide accurate data on EPS and XPS recycling rates.


EPS Recycling Case Studies
There are a number of successful EPS recycling systems and operations currently in operation in a number of countries.


Lack of Awareness and Understanding
Despite industry attempts to educate both business and consumers, there is a perception that both EPS and XPS are difficult or impossible to recycle.


Lack of Reuse / Repurpose options
While both EPS and XPS can be recycled, there is a dearth of options to repurpose or reuse them once used