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Should we continue to recycle polystyrene? Or is it time for a ban?

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You’ve seen it in nearly every movie set in a New York winter – the movie’s main character bundled in a coat, clutching a cup of hot “kwa-fee” – in a polystyrene foam cup. However, as of July 1st 2015, a ban on single-use polystyrene foam food and beverage containers (take away containers, food trays, cups, bowls, plates and loose fill packaging nuts) came into effect in New York City. The City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio even declared that the material cannot be fully recycled with current infrastructure.

Over 100 municipalities in 12 states including New York and California have now banned polystyrene foam with another seven municipalities considering it.

So what does this mean for us? Should we continue to use polystyrene foam and focus on improved recycling, or make a clean break by banning it?

Polystyrene is a plastic derived from crude oil. Polystyrene beads are steamed and expanded before being moulded into the required foam shape. Expanded polystyrene (EPS) mainly consists of air and is valued for its insulation and lightweight properties.

However, these properties also make it problematic as litter and in landfill. It flakes easily; ends up in waterways and eventually in our oceans contributing to the “Pacific Garbage Patch” amongst other problems.  In landfill it refuses to compact and takes up valuable air space.

How much can we recycle?

In 2010-11 the Australian economy consumed 41,651 t.

According to Expanded Polystyrene Australia (EPSA), polystyrene foam is 100% recyclable. However, there are only 1-2 EPS recycling sites, per state, listed on its website.

In 2010-11 only 3,504 t were recycled, equating to an overall recycling rate of only 8.4%.

In 2011-2013, the Australian Packaging Covenant (APC) and the NSW EPA, aimed to make headway on EPS recycling, to their credit, by providing $500,000 in grant funding across 19 organisations.

The program recovered an additional 222 t/yr of EPS, increasing the overall recycling rate by just 0.5% to 8.9%.

Put another way that cost $2252 per tonne recovered over one year. Ouch! Even if you depreciate the equipment over ten years it is $225/tpa, which is more expensive than most landfills in Australia.

(So even if the baling equipment is free, it is still cheaper in most of Australia, to landfill EPS.)

How would we grow recycling?

Most large generators of EPS have recycling systems (balers, compactors, collection services) already. To significantly increase the recycling rate of EPS, capture rates will have to be improved:

  • Domestic and commercial kerbside recycling would need to include EPS (it is mostly excluded);
  • Commercial collection would require an ongoing subsidy from government for all small EPS generators
  • Food establishments would have to add collection to ‘front of house’ operations; and
  • ‘Away from home’ recycling options would have to adapt bin capacities.

These enhancements would involve big costs, for a material that represents 0.2% of the waste stream in Australia.

Would a ban negatively impact Australian businesses and the economy?

While the future for the small number of Australian EPS manufacturers would be bleak in the face of a ban, other Australian businesses will adapt by using other packaging materials which are not only “recyclable”, but actually recycled. This is what is happening in the USA. There are plenty of alternatives to EPS.

It has been over twenty years since McDonald’s ceased the use of EPS clamshell containers, with no major harm caused to the company’s brand or bottom line.

Dunkin’ Donuts for example, has switched to polypropylene cups (plastic #5) in New York City where this material is accepted in municipal recycling programs.

The effect on the economy would be minimal. Substitution is relatively simple.

The challenge would be limiting imports of materials containing EPS packaging. The SONY TV would need to be packaged differently at source. This would require Federal and State Government cooperation.

Not easy in the current political environment and EPS is not high on the environmental priority list of governments.

But what we must do is start a strategic conversation about options and costs relating to EPS (before we spend scarce hard earned taxpayer’s money subsidising collection).

While I strongly support the NSW government’s efforts to trial EPS recovery grants and infrastructure, the fact is governments can’t and won’t, subsidise recovery over the long term. The private sector is unlikely to step up its recovery effort without regulation or price signals (which must maintain a level playing field). Consumers don’t have many options right now and require clarity.

I think the options speak for themselves, but I look forward to your thoughts.

Mike Ritchie is director of  MRA Consulting Group. He can be contacted at [email protected]  

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  • suthnsun

    I think you convinced me, a ban is the logical solution. I think even building insulation can be done better these days, the rest of the packaging etc is easily substituted.

  • The foamy packing peanuts made out of (I think) cornstarch are much more welcomed here, as they can be put into the composting toilet or worm farm after they have served their purpose., although we usually reatain some for re-use as packing. They perform just as well as EPS, without the waste disposal problem that sees most EPS end up in landfill.
    Banning is definitely the way to go!

  • Jacob

    Tax it heavily so that alternatives are used.

  • Bob Fearn

    The NY ban you refer to was overturned by the courts. In America $$ are # 1.