Alan Davey | In defence of expanded polystyrene

Alan Davey of Linpac responds to questions over EPS made at the recent FPA Litter Summit.

Linpac Alan Davey

Linpac Alan DaveyFurther to Josh Brooks’ comments in The Answer To The Litter Problem Is Simple: Stop Littering (Packaging News, Monday, January 20) we at LINPAC Packaging would like to add our own views on the issues surrounding litter and the packaging sector.

First, we fully endorse INCPEN Director Jane Bickerstaffe’s view that litter is an issue for everyone in society because we all want to live in a clean environment and we can all do things to keep it clean. Litter is often the result of bad behaviour but it can also be accidental.

However, we were disappointed to note Andrew Cousins’ argument that “certain packaging materials were particularly difficult for waste managers to deal with – notably expanded polystyrene”.

It’s high time the packaging and plastics industry offered a more robust defence of expanded polystyrene (EPS) and challenged a myriad of myths which have gained genuine currency in the debate about waste in the UK and abroad.

The British Plastics Federation, through the BPF Expanded Polystyrene Group, has done a good job so far in educating food manufacturers, processors, and retailers about the environmental, health and food safety benefits of EPS but we now need to ensure the myths bandied about by politicians and other pressure groups are shown to be what they are – untruths based on no credible science or research.

We can no longer stand by when certain individuals claim that EPS is ‘virtually impossible to recycle’ when it is 100 per cent recyclable.

In reality, the biggest environmental threat relating to food packaging at present is food waste. A report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers said that food waste was being caused by poor storage, strict sell-by dates, bulk offers which encourage shoppers to buy more food than they need and consumer fussiness.

According to the study, between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of the four billion tonnes of food produced around the world each year goes to waste. When the carbon footprint of the food contents dwarfs that of its packaging by ten to 20 times, it is frankly ludicrous to dwell on the impact of the packaging.

EPS – particularly in Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) applications – offers excellent protection qualities, preserving and presenting food well. Its insulating properties extend food shelf life to reduce food waste and as a result the EPS tray, right across Europe, continues to be very popular with retailers and customers.

Crucially, foamed materials meet all the requirements of modern packaging with regards to the environment and recycling. Given that EPS is 98 per cent air, it is the ultimate low carbon packaging option. It is one of the lightest packaging solutions on the market significantly reducing transportation costs and thus further reducing the manufacturers’ and retailers’ carbon footprints. Its excellent insulation and protective properties make it ideal for takeaway food, even more so because it can be molded into portioned servings. People just need to put it in the bin when they have finished with it.

EPS does not produce greenhouse gases on disposal, plus the energy consumption used in its manufacture can be recovered through incineration.

While EPS is perfectly recyclable few local authorities can economically collect and process it, precisely because it has such low density and low carbon input. In Germany 98 per cent of returned EPS packaging is recycled and in the UK there are 25 sites which recycle EPS. During energy recovery, one kilo of EPS replaced 1.4 litres of domestic fuel and other EPS packaging is recycled for use as insulation for houses and buildings – indeed, the majority of EPS produced is for the construction sector.

EPS’s image is largely the very result of the product’s success and of its ubiquity with consumers, who sometimes see it dumped in the streets by less sociable citizens. However, litter is just waste left in the wrong place and we should not penalize packaging because of someone’s anti-social behaviour.

Quality, efficient packaging can significantly reduce waste across the entire supply chain by giving food a longer shelf life and ensures food can be transported around the world safely and securely.

Alan Davey is director of innovation at Linpac Packaging.

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  1. BPF fully endorses Alan Davey’s comment. You have to take a whole life view of a product and EPS performs exceptionally well in terms of saving food waste and saving energy through its light weight and insulation qualities. EPS is certainly recycled including EPS fishboxes.

  2. It’s great to see defence of this versatile and valuable material – speaking from a recycling industry perspective, EPS is very much in demand and earns companies that recycle it good rebates. Yet the challenge is always to get enough of the material in a transport efficient format. The equipment needed to effectively reduce the volume of EPS has traditionally been costly, slow, labour intensive, messy and sometimes dangerous to use and this has put businesses off.This has driven innovation in our sector and with the right equipment choice like the Strautmann StyroPress our users are now benefiting from 97% volume reduction, 24 tonne payloads and equipment that is safe, easy to use, low on labour and neat enough to be used indoors. The financial benefits from landfill diversion and rebates from recycling means a quick payback and ongoing returns on investment for our users.