EPS is among the most hotly debated materials when it comes to recycling. The material itself, composed mainly of air, is highly versatile, effective in reducing product damage, and cheap. But those same properties make it costly to recycle because it takes up a lot of space.
Additionally, that light weight makes it easily swept away in the wind or water, where it adds to the problem of ocean plastic. No surprise, it has been banned in over 100 municipalities in a dozen U.S. states. New York City has had a fraught relationship with EPS recycling.
New York City EPS Ban
The New York ban was reversed in September 2015, when it was lifted by the court, in response to a coalition of EPS producers and local New York business owners. But in 2017, New York reinstituted its EPS ban after it was determined by the city to be impossible to recycle economically.
The good news is that EPS can be recycled, although it can be expensive.
What Is EPS?
There are two types of EPS: expanded and extruded polystyrene. Polystyrene itself is a form of plastic, a polymer that can be extruded (think Styrofoam®) or expanded.
The food service industry is a major user of this product, which makes strong, protective, and insulating trays, cups, and containers. These properties also allow it to be a preferred packaging material for product protection in shipping.
Uses of EPS
EPS is an attractive material for product packaging because it is strong, yet lightweight, is an efficient insulator, and its structure protects products from impact damage.
In addition, EPS uses less energy and water to manufacture than paper alternatives.
The same features that make EPS popular also make it a challenge to recycle: namely, its low density, which can make closing the loop very costly. EPS is 98 percent air, which, when contained in bulky, hard plastic shapes, can become remarkably expensive to transport.
It has to be shipped to a facility where it can be compressed. After the material is compressed, it becomes much more cost- and time-effective to transfer it over long distances to be recycled and reused.
Density is not the only issue, though. Cleanliness has been an ongoing problem in EPS recycling. The material must be free of any contaminants before being compressed, or it creates quality issues for future end users.
EPS Packaging Alternatives
Major brands such as McDonald's and Target are seeking alternatives to EPS packaging not because it isn't a cost-effective packaging material, but due to concerns related to the frustrations of customers when they try to recycle it at home, as well as its implications for ocean plastic and the economics of recycling for businesses such as Target.
The issue remains complicated. Considerations range from the sustainability impact of potentially more product damage and its related carbon footprint and economic cost on one side of the debate if EPS packaging is not used, to the sustainability dilemma of ocean plastic and solid waste generation resulting from using EPS, on the other.