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Basic things to know about EPS

  EPS means Expanded Polystyrene Products and was invented in 1944. This petrochemical plastic is obtained from crystal polystyrene or Crystal PS and it’s composed of 98% of air.

  We can identify EPS products in many things we use in our daily lives, such as cups, lids, and food containers. Many of these are single-use plastics (designed to be used only once). But they can also be hidden inside applications from bike helmets to surf boards.

  It has many different uses. EPS is often used to insulate living areas such as roofs, walls or floors. In the food packaging sector, EPS is used to keep a product at the right temperature. It is used in the production of fish crates and meat trays, for instance. EPS is also used in industrial packaging to protect several products, mainly home appliances.

  EPS foam has its advantages: it’s lightweight, inexpensive, mouldable and has great insulating properties (thermal, shock absorbent and holds liquids).

  But it is a serious marine litter problem. In the oceans, it breaks down into tiny fragments. These are eaten by plankton, fish and seabirds and as such enter the food chain. Ultimately, it can threaten us.

  EPS is very durable, so it accumulates in nature, damaging ecosystems we rely on. Also, it is absorbent, which means it acts like pollutant sponges. And being lightweight, it gets blown by the wind.

  EPS represents a paradox. It is relatively considered in the instructions of selective sorting because it represents only a weak mass per inhabitant (500g/inhabitant/year), but it´s very low density makes it the most produced plastic in terms of volume in 2016.


A little story of EPS:

  Polystyrene was discovered in 1839 by Eduard Simon, an apothecary from Berlin. But it was only in 1931 it started being manufactured by the company I. G. Farben in Ludwigshafen, a German city by the Rhine river. Polystyrene was produced in pellet form for the first time.

  In 1954, the Koppers Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, developed expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam and six years after, Dart Container, the largest manufacturer of foam cups, shipped their first order.

  Nowadays, EPS is one of the leading consumer plastics. It´s widely used in the packaging industry, in the construction and building sector. In 2014, building and construction accounted for 62% of the global uses of EPS, packaging 33% and the remaining 5% are various applications, such as decorations for instance.

  The European Union (EU) represents an important part of the overall production of EPS, with a large number of production sites based in the countries from East of Europe, such as Poland and Germany. In 2016, a total of 1.670 million tons of EPS were produced in EU (9,54% of the world production).


Five curious facts about plastics

  The first synthetic plastics appeared in the early 20th century for military use. However, their widespread use and large-scale production did not occur until after World War II.

  The growth of plastics production in the past 65 years has substantially outpaced any other manufactured material. They are durable and resistant to degradation after all.

  Plastic’s largest market is packaging, mainly due to the global shift from reusable to single-use containers.

  Nature finds it very difficult or impossible to assimilate plastics. So, there are essentially three different fates for plastic waste: it can be recycled or reprocessed into a secondary material; it can be destroyed thermally (mainly by incineration); it can be discarded to sanitary landfills, open dumps or in the natural environment.

  Around 60% of all plastics ever produced were discarded and are accumulating in landfills or in the natural environment.


Recycling: the challenges in the solution

  EPS is 100% recyclable if it has not been contaminated or soiled by other materials. Theoretically, it can be extruded to give crystal PS or re-expanded to provide a new EPS. It can be crushed after cleaning to be used in lightened concrete or in various applications (padding cushions for example).

  However, since it is currently used in the construction industry, for insulation, and it is not recycled in this sector, only 22% of EPS is recycled (figures from 2006). It is most often landfilled with rubble from the walls.

  On the other hand, the EPS is also used a lot for food packaging (32% of total consumption). But the problem is that these packaging are dirty. It is also important to note that a food package will never be suitable for food contact if it is formed from recycled EPS.

  A large part of the EPS is thus not recycled.

  But even the recycling of some of the EPS is a challenge in itself. It’s very expensive to transport loads of light, bulky EPS – beyond 150km, transport and recycling are more energy-intensive than producing new EPS – and to recycle it (due to the many additional costs that the material generates, such as cleaning, densification).

  Storage is also a problem because it cannot be placed outdoors without protection.

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© 2018 OceanWise project

The OceanWise project is co-financed by
the European Regional Development Fund
through the Interreg Atlantic Area Programme