EPS and Recycling

EPS is everywhere: It holds your food, secures items in packages, provides insulation in homes and industry and it’s even in your bike helmet. It’s also known as plastic #6, which you’ve seen used in plastic cups and CD and DVD cases.

Can expanded polystyrene, EPS, be recycled?

Even if your community recycles plastic #6, it may not accept EPS. Because it’s so lightweight, EPS takes up 0.01 percent of the total municipal solid waste stream by weight, but as you may have guessed, its volume is a greater problem than its weight. It takes up space in landfills and doesn’t biodegrade. Landfills are for profit entities that charge by weight and space is a precious commodity. EPS therefore presents a unique challenge. Fortunately, scientists at Sony discovered that EPS completely dissolves when sprayed with limonene, a natural oil extracted from the skin of oranges or other citrus fruits. The EPS dissolves at room temperature and can be processed for reuse.

The Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers reports that 56 million pounds of EPS are now recycled yearly in the U.S.  That’s an astonishing amount considering that EPS is 98 percent air. EPS needs to be compressed to reduce its volume before it can be recycled, thus most EPS recycling tends to be done by commercial users of EPS. According to the EPS Industry Alliance, about 5% of EPS is recycled in the US. EPS insulation panels can incorporate recycled material. This tends to vary with the manufacturer and product line; some use only virgin material. The industry average is about 5 – 10% recycled material.

Because of the varied uses for EPS, recycling requirements are a little more complex than, say, paper and other plastics, but it is worth making the effort to keep this prevalent material in use and out of landfills. Another reason to keep EPS out of landfills is that it is not biodegradable.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle