CIF Pilot Project Confirms Expanded Polystyrene Recycling Possible but Challenging

CIF Pilot Project Confirms Expanded Polystyrene Recycling Possible but Challenging

The CIF recently funded a pilot project to evaluate densification and marketing of curbside collected Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) in the City of Toronto (City). Additional financial support was offered by the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA). EPS is commonly referred to by the trade name “Styrofoam”.

Support for this pilot project (CIF Project #1035) builds on previous CIF efforts to identify and overcome barriers to EPS recycling in Ontario. Prior projects include, but are not limited, to:

  • Densification and Recycling of Post Consumer Polystyrene (Project #130 – 2009)
  • Support for Selection of Private Processor for EPS (2012)
  • Processing of Expanded Polystyrene in Accordance with CPIA Recommendations (Project #731 – 2014)

Projects

The City currently accepts EPS as part of its curbside cart based collection program. The pilot project used manually recovered EPS placed in plastics bags at Canada Fibre’s MRF on Arrow Road. The plastic bags of EPS are normally emptied into a MRF bunker, but for the purposes of the pilot, were hauled to the City’s Dufferin Facility on Vanley Crescent for densification using a RUNI SK200 densifier.

Following further hand sorting at the Dufferin Facility, nine pallets of densified EPS bricks (or blocks of densified EPS) were processed over an eight-day period. A total of 1,750 kg of EPS was densified. Each pallet contained approximately 200 kg of EPS bricks.

After distribution of the densified EPS to potential re-processors for evaluation, no viable market could be established for either the densified EPS, or standard baled material, with the existing quality. CPIA has been assisting the City over the last year by arranging for re-processing EPS on an as-needed basis in Indiana. The City does not currently have a sales contract in place for acceptance of baled or densified EPS.

CIF Project #731, completed in 2014, concluded that the net cost to collect EPS curbside in urban centres ranged from $1,500 – $2,800 per tonne. Findings from this densification pilot project supported the 2014 project conclusions.

At the end of the pilot project a proposal was received by the City to accept baled EPS at a competitive cost per tonne. However, the proposal included possible Energy-from-Waste utilization and the City declined the offer.

While various efforts continue across Canada to seek cost-effective ways to collect and re-process EPS and create a sustainable end market, after almost 30 years, no consistent, reliable and cost-effective option appears to exist for curbside-collected EPS.

Collecting EPS at Depots

Some Ontario municipalities continue to accept white EPS at depots. This alternative approach eliminates curbside collection and MRF processing costs which can exceed $1,000 per tonne to manage. Even with no collection or MRF processing costs, the hauling costs from depots and fees charged to accept EPS by re-processors are substantial and not feasible for many municipalities. The exception is the Town of Markham, which has been successful in securing a domestic market (to replace the previous export outlet) for its densified depot-collected EPS.

Demand for post-use EPS

Despite tremendous effort by industry and municipalities over the past decade, EPS recycling remains challenging both operationally and financially. Costs have remained high and markets uncertain.

However, post-use EPS remains a product with significant global demand –  e.g. building insulation panels in USA and Spain; extruded mouldings in Asia and USA – provided strict quality criteria are met. A simple message emerges; “clean it and they will buy”.

An October 2017 report by More Recycling indicates that the demand for Post-Consumer Resin (PCR) foam polystyrene exceeds supply by some 233%.

The table below illustrates the potential market for Post Consumer polystyrene in the USA.

Capacity to purchase PCR carries the provision that “price and quality specifications” must be achieved to access the markets and it is this provision that municipalities must weigh carefully before addition EPS to their program. The cost and feasibility of recycling PCR differs dramatically from that of clean post-industrial material and may prove to be prohibitively expensive or impractical for many municipalities to achieve.

Resource relating to current quality specifications are available on-line:

With the uncertainty surrounding the timing and final material composition of the Blue Box Program under future individual producer responsibility plans, municipalities must carefully consider their approach to EPS recycling based on waste diversion goals and individual community economics.

In the meantime the polystyrene industry, through CPIA, is able to assist Ontario municipalities facing challenges marketing their materials.  For more information, email Joe Hruska, CPIA at:  jhruska@plastics.ca or Mike Birett, CIF at: mbirett@thecif.ca.