Bright prospects for recycling of EPS packaging

A bright outlook for recycling of expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging waste is forecast in a report commissioned by the British Plastics Federation (BPF).1 The recycling rate could double over the next 15 years against a background of sharply rising EPS packaging sales.

EPS consumption in the UK is currently about 40,000 tonnes per year. Of this, just over half goes into packaging of white and brown goods, electronic equipment, horticultural produce and fish.

Last year, 2,500 tonnes (12%) of post-consumer EPS packaging was recycled. The figure is expected to reach 3,700 tonnes (17%) this year. Most of the recycled material goes into non-packaging applications such as cassette cases and hardwood replacements.

The study commissioned by the BPF was carried out by the Centre for Economics and Business Research. It projects an increase in EPS packaging consumption to 37,000 tonnes in 2010. At the same time, the report suggests that the recovery rate could reach in excess of 50% by 2010, of which about two-thirds could be mechanically recycled and the remainder incinerated.

Market forces are working in favour of recycling. Prices for virgin polystyrene, currently around £800 per tonne, are rising. In contrast, the price for recycled EPS is around £400-450 per tonne, offering significant scope for substitution of virgin material.

The potential market for EPS recyclate is large. The main outlet is non-foam polystyrene applications, which currently amounts to 200,000 tonnes per year. Post-consumer EPS packaging can also be blended in as a partial direct substitute for virgin polymer.

The report says that many of the potential applications remain underexploited. And it concludes that "the scale of EPS recycling in the UK is unlikely to be able to expand to any feasible level...[by 2010] without encountering any significant constraint through the size of the market for end products."

Some major users of EPS packaging are already reaping economic benefits from recycling. The leading TV and video rental business Granada is saving at least £40,000 per year in landfill costs by collecting over 85 tonnes annually from its stores and customers. The material is transported in delivery vehicles returning to its central distribution depot where it is compacted and passed on to a recycler, Flopak. Granada is also collecting used EPS packaging from other businesses to maximise the benefits of the scheme.

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