While officials in California debate whether to enact broader polystyrene takeout container prohibitions, Packaging Development Resources is recycling the material those officials want to ban.
The 2-year-old company in Santa Ana, Calif., recycles PS despite many state and municipal leaders' perceptions that the material is difficult to recycle.
Using PS lunch trays collected from the San Diego Unified School District, PDR separates foreign material from the PS at its Santa Ana plant, washes it, densifies it and turns it back into plastic resin. The recycled resin then is sold and made into a number of products, including food-service containers and consumer packaging, said Tom Preston, director of operations and engineering and one of the firm's principals.
``The schools save money by diverting material to us from landfills, we eliminate thousands of pounds of material from landfills and we save municipalities money by reducing their waste stream,'' said Preston, an engineer who has been in the packaging business for 17 years. ``We prevent the material from becoming litter or being mishandled in the waste processing stream.''
PDR is scaling up from its initial pilot plant program, said Preston. PDR already has found several markets for its resin, and inquiries have increased since it received a letter of nonobjection from the Food and Drug Administration last year, approving its resins for use in materials that come in contact with food.
``We are selling the resins to companies that make consumer goods,'' he said. ``We are working with companies that make products for food-service providers on turning the resins back into disposable containers.'' Those products include trays, plates, cups, containers, cutlery and lids made from a mix of virgin and recycled PS. Past the lab stage, the company is gearing up for more tests this month, he said. It has the physical space now but is not ready to add a second extrusion line.
``As we grow, we will either add an additional line or an additional facility,'' Preston said. ``Transporting light foam is costly. You have to be close to supply. You have to be regional for polystyrene recycling to succeed.''
One reason PS recycling hasn't been successful, he said, is that it isn't collected curbside and is difficult to transport economically.
``Everyone who has tried to do this in the past has tried to fit a reclamation model into their operations,'' Preston said. ``We are new enough to try things a different way. Our approach has been to create a specific market with target applications. Food-service disposal products are the largest use and that is an obvious target market.''
PDR chose to partner with the school district for two reasons: to obtain a reliable supply source and create a recycling educational opportunity. Schools present a ``captive audience'' of users who have a steady amount of materials that can be recycled, he said.
It is also a way to teach school-age children ``the value and importance of recycling,'' he said. ``We are training them to view recycling as a value. That gets me out of bed in the morning.''
Because of PDR's success, Preston argues the bans enacted in some California cities and being considered by other municipalities, as well as the state Legislature, are premature.
As an industry, he said, members are learning from their mistakes and making improvements in technology that will make PS and plastics recycling economically feasible.
``There is a lot of room for growth in recycling,'' he said. ``Legislators need to see that there are good programs and let them grow. We need to put our dollars to work to advance recycling programs and keep what we have taken out of the environment away from landfills and turn them back into products that can be recycled.''