Some of the largest expanded polystyrene foam processors say they now regularly can use much more recycled material in their products, and some want to undertake a study with the federal government to back up their claims.
The companies point to improved mixing technologies that allow them to make some products with 15-20 percent recycled content, up from a more-typical figure of 5-10 percent about four years ago.
There has been no quantum leap in PS technology. Rather, several years of tinkering lie behind the improvements, according to James Goodall, vice president of Foam Fabricators Inc. in Erie, Pa.
``It's not any great magic,'' he said. ``We just got better at mixing it.''
Companies declined to provide many specifics, but several of the larger players said they are mixing recycled and virgin material just before molding, rather than earlier in the process — and that improves their ability to match densities of virgin and recycled material.
``The big difference here is the equipment that we designed, enabling us to mix at precisely the right time and precisely the right temperature,'' said Robert Mallon, vice president of Marko Foam Products Inc. in Hayward, Calif.
An older method of recycling PS known as ``reconstituting the bead,'' by adding pentane back into the material, also achieved good results, but made the recycled material more costly than virgin.
This newer process, however, makes the cost of recycled material about half that of virgin, Mallon said. The company can produce the recycled PS for about 35 cents a pound, cutting the total cost of the final product by roughly 5 percent, he said.
But customer acceptance remains uncertain in some applications, because the material can lose cushioning if it contains too much recycled material, Mallon said.
That's why the industry is supporting a proposal for a $450,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant to evaluate the material as part of a larger study. Jorge Marcondis, associate professor and coordinator of the packaging program at San Jose State University in California, initiated the proposal.
According to Marcondis, industry would provide about $800,000, in mostly in-kind services.
``What people think is that [recycled-content products] don't perform as well as virgin,'' he said. ``What we are trying to do is give people confidence.''
Only EPS for certain applications, such as shipping materials for television sets, can be made out of 20 percent recycled content, Goodall said.
Products that require thin-wall or high-density foams, such as helmets, cannot be made with the process, he said.
James Brakebill, vice president of manufacturing at Tuscarora Inc. in New Brighton, Pa., said strides have been made, but he cautioned against overstating the gains.
``There have been substantial improvements in the technology and the consistency of the equipment, but to say the industry has moved broadly to a 15-20 percent threshold is not true,'' Brakebill said.
Marko's Mallon said the industry is motivated by economics and its commitment to collect and recycle PS foam.
Previously, Marko had lost money on recycling because 90 percent of the post-consumer material was turned into rigid pellets for products such as food-service trays. Now, about 50 percent of that material goes to rigid pellets, while the other half is mixed with virgin PS, Mallon said.
Marko also had no hope of paying off a $300,000 debt for recycling equipment, but Mallon said his hope now, ``based purely on speculation, is that we can break even.''