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The Recycling Of Polystyrene

Due to its outstanding insulating and protecting qualities, polystyrene (also known as EPS Foam or Styrofoam) is a very common plastic packaging material that is widely used to package food products, electronic goods, electrical appliances, furniture, etc. Polystyrene is also utilised in the production of practical goods including disposable cups, trays, cutlery, cartons, and cases, amongst other things.

The disposal of polystyrene goods and packaging is becoming an increasingly difficult challenge for local governments and businesses, despite the fact that polystyrene has a number of desirable properties. Due to the fact that it is both huge and bulky, polystyrene takes up a substantial amount of room in garbage cans. Since garbage cans fill up more rapidly as a result, more frequent garbage collection is required. Polystyrene is rather lightweight when compared to the volume that it occupies; as a result, it takes up a significant amount of valuable space in landfills and has the potential to be blown around and become a nuisance in the surrounding areas.

Even while many businesses have adopted recycling programmes, the vast majority of polystyrene continues to be disposed of in landfills all over the world. Each year, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste polystyrene are produced in the Middle East and disposed of in landfills, according to figures that are considered to be conservative.

Environmental Impacts

Although it is believed that items made from EPS foam (also known as polystyrene) make up less than one percent of the overall weight of materials that end up in landfills, the proportion of landfill space that it occupies is far larger due to the fact that it is so lightweight. In addition to this, it is almost non-biodegradable because the decomposition process might take hundreds or even thousands of years. Even when it has previously been thrown away in landfills, expanded polystyrene (EPS) is easily transported by the wind and might end up littering the streets or poisoning aquatic bodies. Animals that consume the microscopic polystyrene components that are created when EPS foam breaks apart put themselves at risk of choking or having their intestines blocked.

Fish are able to absorb polystyrene once it has degraded in the water and has become more digestible. It is possible for marine creatures further up the food chain to devour fishes that have taken EPS, hence increasing the concentration of the pollutant in the marine environment. Styrene, the plastic monomer used in manufacturing EPS, has been identified as a possible human carcinogen by both the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Considering that humans are at the top of the food chain, this could pose a potential threat to our health. Styrene is used in the production of EPS. EPS runs into issues with its capacity to be environmentally sustainable since styrene may be produced either from petroleum or natural gas, both of which are nonrenewable resources that are also in the process of being quickly depleted.

Trends in Recycling

It appears that many people are under the impression that polystyrene cannot be recycled. This is an incorrect assumption. Because it is a thermoplastic, it can be melted down and shaped into a wide variety of various products made of plastic. At the moment, the recycling of polystyrene, also known as EPS foam, typically takes place according to the following process:

The EPS foam products are segregated from the other trash before being sorted into their respective piles.

The EPS foam products that have been separated into their respective categories are then fed through a compactor in order to minimise the volume of the foam. Some compactor systems may achieve a ratio of compaction of up to 50:1, which indicates that they are capable of reducing the volume by up to 98%.

The larger bits are crushed into flakes during the shredding process. In most cases, this phase is skipped, and the “packaging peanuts,” which are little bits of EPS foam intended to cushion fragile objects, are instead put straight into the pelletizing machine.

The flakes go through a process called melting and extrusion, in which they are heated and melted in pelletizing extruders, and then they are allowed to cool down so that they may solidify. The material that is produced can subsequently be utilised, after being reheated and melted, to manufacture several additional plastic goods, including clothing hangers, picture frames, DVD cases, and a great deal more.

Some of The Key Challenges

Even though the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers has reported that the recycling rate for post-consumer and post-commercial EPS in the United States has increased to 28% in 2010 from around 20% in 2008, this value is still lower than the majority of solid wastes. In 2008, the value was around 20%. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) reports that the recycling rates for steel cans, vehicle batteries, and glass containers are respectively 96.2%, 70.6%, and 34.2%. EPS foam is bulky, so it requires more space to store it and more money to transport it. However, it only yields a small amount of polystyrene that can be reused or remoulded (in fact, polystyrene accounts for only 2% of the volume of uncompacted EPS foams), so it is not very useful for either purpose. Recyclers have no reason to explore EPS recycling as a result of this lack of motivation.

For reasons of hygiene, items that have been used to contain or store food ought to be carefully cleaned, which adds to the expenses associated with the process. For the same set of reasons, these items cannot be recycled to make food containers of the same kind; rather, they are utilised for the production of plastic products that are not related to food. As a result, the production of food containers invariably calls for the utilisation of fresh polystyrene. At the moment, it is more cost-effective to create new EPS foam goods than it is to recycle the existing stock, and manufacturers would prefer to work with fresh polystyrene because of its superior quality to recycled stock.

Light At The End Of The Tunnel 

Recyclers are dissuaded from recycling polystyrene garbage due to the high expense of transporting the waste’s bulky form. Companies who acquire a significant amount of EPS foam (particularly in the form of packaging) may find it worthwhile to make an investment in a compactor, which will lower the overall volume of the items. Recycling companies will pay a higher price for the compacted product, which will make it simpler to recoup the initial expenditure.

Even though the majority of these initiatives are still in the research or pilot stage, there have also been achievements in research involving the recycling of EPS.

Pseudomonas putida, a kind of bacterium, has been shown in a number of tests to be capable of converting polystyrene into a material that is more easily biodegradable. Polystyrene depolymerization, which involves turning polystyrene back to its original styrene monomer, is also gaining traction as a technique.

Turnig Polystyrene into Building Bricks

A company called Greenlite Lightweight Concreate has developed a process that turns recycled polystyrene into lightweight bricks that are both durable and cost-effective. A number of years ago, businesses in other countries became aware that they could recycle polystyrene into materials for the construction industry. 2014 saw the opening of Cape Town’s first facility dedicated to the production of polystyrene bricks and partitions.

The fact that many individuals are unaware that polystyrene may be recycled, as well as the fact that many recycling firms do not collect it, is a significant obstacle. Even in the recycling material provided by the City of Cape Town to households who live in its curbside recycling region, polystyrene is listed as something that cannot be recycled.