PS recycling efforts still elusive

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Where polystyrene recycling stands compared with one year ago is a matter of debate. But two things are certain when it comes to PS takeout packaging: The pressure for bans continues to build, and there are increasing cries for producer responsibility.

What's more, those calls for producers to take end-of-life responsibility are likely to intensify now that another segment of the packaging industry — manufacturers of plastic carryout bags — pledged last month to incorporate 40 percent recycled content in their bags by 2015.

With regard to recycling, on the positive side, Dart Container Corp. has added collection centers at several of its North American manufacturing plants in the past nine months, plans to open even more before the end of this year, and is aggressively trying to boost collection of industrial and electronics packaging foam and find new ways for restaurants and the public to recycle their PS food containers.

“We are working on permitting issues and hope to open a collection center in Tumwater, Wash., in early summer” and to open centers at all Dart facilities in North America by year-end, said Michael Westerfield, Dart's director of recyclability and sustainability on the West Coast.

He said the $1.4 billion privately owned company — which is the largest global producer of PS foam cups in the U.S. — also has a pilot PS recycling program for restaurants under way in Florida. Dart expects to have a distributor take-back program in place by the end of the summer.

Another company, specialty construction material manufacturer Grace Canada Inc., has been collecting recycled PS foam packaging from eight Wal-Mart stores in the province of Ontario since October and is using it to manufacture a fire-resistant commercial insulation product.

But, conversely, the recycling of PS packaging from schools has taken several steps backward, which makes it more difficult for the industry to combat community attempts to rid themselves of what their elected officials view as a highly visible litter problem.

In January, Evergreen Partnering Group shut its Atlanta-area PS recycling operation that it had opened in 2006 to work with schools in Gwinnett County in the Atlanta area and in Pasco County, Fla., in the Tampa region.

That shutdown came just six months after Recycling Professionals Inc., in West Linn, Ore., shuttered its 15-year-old closed-loop recycling program with area schools, in June 2008.

In addition, several sources told Plastics News that Packaging Development Resources in Santa Ana, Calif., has ended its closed-loop recycling program that it began two years ago with the San Diego Unified School District, bringing to an end the only other closed-loop school recycling program for PS food packaging in the U.S. Officials of the company did not respond to telephone calls or e-mails seeking comment.

Dart is not involved to any great extent in selling PS products to schools.

Evergreen CEO Michael Forrest said, “I can't make money until the manufacturers start to put money into putting recycled content into their finished product.”

The North Reading, Mass.-based firm's recycling operation now consists of supplying PS material to a small program in Boston that is managed by that city's school district.

“Until the industry steps up and creates demand like Coca-Cola did with its recycling investments for PET, there will be no demand for recycled content” for PS food packaging, Forrest said.

Despite his company's recent retrenchment, Forrest has developed a business plan that envisions the construction of 10 PS recycling plants across the U.S. during the next five years. Each plant would cost roughly $1 million and produce 1 million pounds of resin annually.

The economics are based on working with schools and manufacturers in a closed-loop system, with schools paying Evergreen fees based on a percentage of their savings from disposal costs and converters doing the same, based on the percentage of their green product sales.

If everything happens as Forrest envisions, green EPS food- packaging sales would increase from $6.8 million in the first year to $118 million in the fifth year, at which point he said green sales would have a 6 percent market share of food industry EPS packaging.

The industry's reluctance to embrace recycled content and to become more involved in recycling is rooted in two fears, said one industry executive. They worry that the additional costs of using recycled content could make their products uncompetitive and they fear that environmentalists will use any industry-supported recycling effort to argue that the plastics industry has to recycle all of its packaging.

“It has to be a very strategic, well-defined plan,” said the source.

In addition, another industry executive says that despite the attention given to the issue by environmental activists, most consumers haven't changed direction. “They are still saying 'Give me more and don't ask me to get involved.'

“Those realities don't give the industry a strong motivation to change and aren't enough to get manufacturers interested enough to make a change,” he said.

In addition, recycling PS foam, whether it is electronics packaging or takeout packaging, remains a challenge.

“It is relatively easy to gather PS in a contained environment like schools, colleges and prisons,” said Larry McIntyre, vice president and general manager of Recycling Professionals. “The real trick is, how do you get it from people who got it at the grocery store or restaurants? That is a much more complex issue, but we have to figure it out.”

It also is a challenge to get enough value for the material to cover the costs of recycling, especially since PS foam is bulky and difficult to store and transport. In addition, because the Food and Drug Administration needs to know where companies that make food-grade recycled resins get their material, recycled PS resins are more likely to end up in lower-value, lower-priced applications if the material is collected at curbside.

“This is one of the reasons why the industry is scratching its head trying to figure out how to move forward,” McIntyre said. “In addition, the challenges involved in blending in recycled PS are huge on the processing end. It is a lot more complex than it looks.”

Dart hitting mark

Despite those obstacles, Dart has put in place several initiatives in an attempt to build a PS recycling infrastructure. Among them: It opened collection centers for PS foam at its two California plants in Corona and Lodi in October.

Dart compacts the PS it recycles in California and ships it to companies such as Timbron International Inc. in Stockton, Calif., which makes interior moldings from recycled resin, and Chinese manufacturer Nepco Inc., which makes high-end, ornate picture frames from recycled PS. Nepco is opening a plant on the West Coast.

“Our volume in California has exceeded our expectations,” said Dart's Westerfield.

As a result, he said that in the next three months, Dart will be increasing the recycling capacity in Lodi from 60 pounds per hour to 200 pounds per hour, and from 35 pounds per hour to 400 pounds per hour in Corona.

The addition of the California collection centers brings the number of Dart PS collection centers and drop-off locations to seven, with the others in Leola, Pa.; Lithonia, Ga.; Plant City, Fla.; Campbellford, Ontario; and Mason, Mich.

“We don't have a goal in terms of volume” nationwide, Westerfield said. “We just want to be part of the process to help create a recycling infrastructure.”

In March, Dart also started a pilot program in Florida in which customers such as restaurants can purchase plastic-lined Recycla-Pak cartons that they can use to collect PS foam and ship it prepaid back to Dart.

“There is substantial interest by restaurants to do this so they can continue to use foam,” Westerfield said.

The Dart initiatives got kudos from McIntyre, who often has been critical of the PS industry's lack of recycling initiatives.

“They have done a good job. I really applaud them,” he said. “They are stepping up in a modified producer responsibility role,” catching the attention of some government officials.

“Some policy makers recognize that there are some people trying to get this to work,” McIntyre said.

“The Dart program is a good hybrid program that encourages people to bring PS back to a drop-off location and it creates an opportunity to segregate polystyrene from trash,” added Mike Levy, director of the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group of the American Chemistry Council.

Yet the calls for bans continue, fueled by litter issues, and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 25 billion PS cups alone are thrown away annually.

In May, Palo Alto became the 23rd California city to ban PS takeout packaging. There also is a PS ban in Santa Cruz County, Calif. Four other California cities and one California county bar the use of PS takeout packaging at city facilities and events, and a ban on PS packaging went into effect in Seattle on Jan. 1.

The call for bans is not just a West Coast phenomenon. The city of Philadelphia is considering a proposal that would ban restaurants, delicatessens and supermarkets from using disposable PS cups, bowls and trays.

Dart has said that such a ban could reduce its PS sales in Pennsylvania by 15 percent and jeopardize the jobs of some of the 1,700 workers at its manufacturing plants in Lancaster and Leola, Pa.

According to the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers, 69.4 million pounds of expanded PS were recycled in 2008. That includes 35.8 million from post-industrial recovery, 28.5 million from post-commercial packaging and 5.1 million from post-consumer packaging.

The amount of non-industrial foam recovered was up 1.6 million pounds from two years ago. The numbers do not include food-service packaging foam.