Recycling the unrecyclable

The perfect packaging protector, polystyrene is ubiquitous yet notoriously difficult to recycle. Some local authorities, however, are creating a circular economy for this problematic matter. By Alice Lang.

Polystyrene has long been one of the most commonly found plastics in UK households. According to the North London Waste Authority (NLWA) the average home produces about 40kg of polystyrene waste each year. Owing to its lightweight bulkiness and durability, it is used generously within food packaging, building insulation, bicycle helmets and toys.

Polystyrene That being said, these advantages don’t come without a price. Polystyrene is notoriously hard to recycle. The very airiness that makes the substance so valuable makes it difficult to collect and transport in large quantities from the kerbside. Consequently, authorities are less willing to implement widespread polystyrene recycling, on account of staggering costs and sizeable logistical challenges.

However, some new technologies are emerging to solve the problem and, last November, the North London Waste Authority (NLWA) began trialling a new specialist polystyrene compactor at two of its reuse and recycling centres (RRCs). The Greenbank Cobalt SC1100 compactor was installed at its Waltham Forest and Barnet locations, where polystyrene waste from other RRCs will be collected and compacted before being sent to Greenbank’s facilities to be reprocessed. When running at full capacity, the scheme will be implemented in eight locations across the area.

Speaking about the scheme, Councillor Clyde Loake, Chair of the NLWA, commented: “Residents have responded brilliantly to the trial and are clearly delighted that there’s now a genuinely sustainable solution to this awkward material. In the long-term, we really need extended producer responsibility legislation to improve the recyclability of household packaging. However, we also recognise our role in providing good out-of-home reuse and recycling services.”

The Greenbank compactors, processing up to 30kg of material an hour, press large pieces of polystyrene together to form thick bales of polystyrene. Bales are shredded into pellets, to be taken to Greenbank’s reprocessing facilities, where they will then be transformed into ‘expanded polystyrene’ (EPS). This can then be used to develop insulation panels for the construction industries, which will be reusable, or into hard plastic, to form objects such as coat hangers, toys or picture frames.

This article was taken from Issue 102

The London trial stands at the helm of UK polystyrene recycling, joining a handful of other authorities taking the leap. In January, Aberdeenshire Council expanded its pilot polystyrene recycling scheme to nine RRC locations. Such growing interest in polystyrene recycling is promising, considering the growing use of polystyrene in construction and packaging. The global polystyrene market is reportedly set to grow by 5.2 per cent between 2021 and 2028. Uptake of alternatives to polystyrene from major retailers, such as plastic-free packaging pulp, remains minimal on account of demanding technical requirements, meaning efforts to widen polystyrene recycling are more than worthwhile.

Regardless of its promise, the new trial doesn’t come without challenges. The scheme isn’t kerbside, meaning its success relies on residents’ initiative to drop off their polystyrene at the available locations. Given how difficult it is to transport large amounts of polystyrene, whether this will materialise is uncertain. Also, despite its weighty presence in food packaging, polystyrene is hard to clean and decontaminate once received by the plants. Once decontaminated, recycled EPS still isn’t safe to use in food packaging, limiting the usage of the new material.

Even so, polystyrene recycling is a fruitful alternative to current practices. Recycling used polystyrene will significantly reduce the fossil fuel required to make new materials and will divert it away from being burnt to create energy from waste, which itself emits considerable carbon. The trial, even in its infancy, acts as a good omen on efforts to repurpose hard-to-recycle yet ubiquitous materials that stand centre in our homes.