Dart Container Corp. is one of the largest manufacturers of polystyrene foam food packaging, so maybe it's fitting that the company also is a major player in foam recycling.
Earlier this year, the Mason, Mich.,-based company was given the Excellence in EPS Recycling Award from the EPS Industry Alliance, recognizing its “extraordinary commitment to the advancement of expanded polystyrene recycling.”
Dart says it has been recycling expanded PS for about 20 years and accepts post-consumer foam packaging for recycling at 18 of its plants worldwide.
The company collects more than 1.5 million pounds of the material annually, which is recycled and sold to manufacturers that turn it into crown molding, picture frames, agricultural material and other products, said Michael Westerfield, corporate director of recycling programs for Dart, in a phone interview.
Dart also operates foam cup collection programs for its customers.
The company has sold more than 2,800 of its Recycla-Pak program kits, Westerfield said. The kits contain two corrugated recycling bins and promotional information on foam recycling. The bins are used to collect foam cups and double as a pre-paid shipping container to send the cups back to Dart for recycling.
Dart's Cups are Recyclable — or CARE — program is aimed at larger customers, like college campuses or hospitals. Customers collect used foam food service packaging in the bin and Dart picks up the material once a month for recycling.
The company is also working with school districts in California as part of the “Going the Extra Mile” foam recycling program. Schools in the Chula Vista Elementary School District and the Riverside Unified School District collect foam lunch trays and send them to Dart to be processed for recycling.
While Dart's collection programs are great for customers, and bring in needed material, they aren't reaching the masses, Westerfield said.
So in recent years, the company has turned its focus curbside.
About 71 million pounds of expanded PS was recycled domestically in 2010, including 37.1 million pounds of post-consumer and post-commercial material, up from 69.4 million total pounds in 2008, according to the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers.
“Most people, when you talk to general public, they don't even know foam is recyclable,” Westerfield said. “The fact that we've overcome that and grown in such a short period of time, that's very positive.”
Los Angeles launched California's first foam packaging recycling program in 2007. Seeing such a large city take on a material that was considered difficult to recycle made people realize that foam recycling is “something that has legs,” Westerfield said.
According to Dart, more than 65 cities in California have access to curbside expanded PS recycling and the number keeps growing. Based on population, about 20 percent of the state can put foam packaging in their recycling bin, Westerfield said.
The company deserves some of the credit: Dart decided to invest in manufacturers and technology that could make it easier to recycle foam at municipal recycling facilities.
Foam is about 95 percent air, which can make it challenge to store and recycle. Recyclers use compacters, called densifiers, which use mechanical pressure to compress foam into smaller, workable units.
Dart has helped developed densifiers that can recycle foam of varying densities at the same time, and take care of everything from grinding onward in one step.
The compact densifiers have a small footprint and take up little room, so they can be installed in unused spaces in recycling plants, and are designed to cut down on labor.
They can be installed underneath sorting lines, so as soon as foam is removed from a line it can go down a chute and right into the machine or an automatic blower can move the material to the machine hands-free, Westerfield said.
The densifiers can also be leased to Dart customers that participate in the CARE program.
Much of Dart's attention has been on foam recycling in California because the area already has relatively high diversion rates, and the company was also approach by California's Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery to help improve expanded PS recycling rates, Westerfield said.
Realistically, foam recycling will take off in locations that have already conquered “low hanging fruit” and are looking to improve recycling more difficult materials, Westerfield said.
But he was hopeful that other areas will start embracing the material.
“A lot of people thought [expanded PS recycling] couldn't be done, but it can be done, and the programs aren't stopping, they're expanding,” Westerfield said. “It's possible and practical.”