Reprinted with permission from El Empaque + Conversion

Tactical Innovation to Grow Expanded Polystyrene Recovery

Anne Johnson

Co-Author: Anne Johnson
Principal & VP Global Corporate Sustainability

Catherine Goodall

Co-Author: Catherine Goodall
Senior Consultant

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, especially when the largest city in the US decides to unilaterally ban your packaging. As of July 1st, 2015, in New York City, no food service establishment, mobile food commissary, or store will be able to use, sell, or offer expanded polystyrene (EPS) single service food items or loose fill packaging (commonly known as packaging peanuts). This is the situation facing converters and end users of expanded polystyrene foodservice packaging in New York City. There are two striking lessons here. One is the power of cities and their local councils to issue highly impactful regulations that shape systems and disrupt supply chains. Second is the ability of business to respond with innovation to address the challenges that were raised by the NYC Department of Sanitation and other communities in the US.

Expanded polystyrene packaging is widely used in foodservice in New York City. From foam trays used daily in the immense public school system with more than 1.1 million students to the more than 24,000 restaurants that may or may not use EPS cups or containers for take out service, to firms that provide packaging services and use EPS for dunnage, it is a major market for EPS. New York City first examined if it could recycle EPS. Citing challenges with lack of end markets and food contamination with collection, the NY Department of Sanitation decided they could not recycle it at their existing facility in an economically feasible way. New York City is not alone in its concerns. While there are a number of significant programs to collect and recycle EPS, they are not widespread. In the New York City case, the industry responded with an offer to begin collecting and recycling it including guaranteeing a market price for all EPS and rigid polystyrene, but the city declined. It cited lack of markets for post-consumer EPS as a key consideration. So the decision to ban EPS is significant with far reaching consequences for businesses.

Much research has been done over the past several years by the industry to understand the recyclability of single use foodservice packaging in collection systems, in sorting systems and in end markets. The results vary at different points in the recovery system and by material. The industry has released the finding of its research []. For EPS, the industry has published additional research on markets [] and informational resources for communities, schools, and others interested in recycling EPS foam []. However, the challenges for EPS are real. While it is recyclable if collected, some material recovery facilities (MRFs) do not prefer it because it breaks apart in their systems and contaminates other materials and the end markets are not widely available. To address these obstacles to recycling their material, the EPS industry is stepping up with an innovative grant program. Just released, this grant program is making funds available to MRFs for equipment like densifiers that would enable them to better handle EPS and make it more economical to process and transport to markets. Likewise, some funding is available for MRFs or recycling programs for technical assistance.

This voluntary industry approach to recovery seems to be a somewhat uniquely American strategy to develop recycling and recovery infrastructure. It is occurring in the absence of federal regulation but is occurring often because of consumer, customer and local regulatory drivers. We have seen some remarkable examples in the growth of consumer access to recycling for a variety of materials over the past five years, but the message from MRFs is that the variety and complexity of materials that enter their facilities present challenges to an infrastructure that requires large investments and changes more slowly than packaging. Industry investment like the EPS grant program is one of the innovative steps that leverages the investments already made in recycling infrastructure, while seeking to encourage optimization of facilities and programs where recycling EPS foam makes sense – for those who choose to make the investment.