“Styrofoam” has traditionally been the bane of environmentalists. It’s cheap to produce, lightweight, and does not biodegrade naturally over time.
In other words, it’s a big problem for landfills. But hope is on the horizon…
Polystyrene and EPS — mistakenly called “styrofoam” (see related sidebar) — has now become highly recyclable, thanks to innovative technology.
And the demand from manufacturers who use the recycled material to make new products even exceeds the current supply.
Oftentimes, the recycled polystyrene is used to make more EPS. But it can now be used in many other applications, as well.
A Matter of Density
Until recently, recycling polystyrene was not practical because of the transportation costs involved. (EPS is more than 95% air.) So in order to cost-effectively transport the product, it had to be condensed.
Some companies are densifying their used EPS on site, with concentrators provided by an innovative recycling company, Polystyvert.
Others companies are sending their polystyrene to a Material Recycling Facility (MRF), where it mixes with EPS from curbside recycling, for processing.
Let’s take a close look at how one company turns recycled foam cups, egg containers and packaging into miles of wood-like molding for picture frames.
NEPCO, Natural Environmental Protection Company, is based in Pomona, California. For the past three and half years, NEPCO has been taking dense blocks of recycled EPS and transforming them into “wood” picture frame molding.
NEPCO receives these blocks (or “ingots”) from companies like Dart Container Corporation. Dart is the world’s largest manufacturer of foam cups and containers. (In fact, they produce about as many as all of their competitors combined.)
But NEPCO also receives a lot of its raw material from two different types of MRF’s:
Those that process “clean” (i.e., not food-related) EPS, and
Those that process the “residual” polystyrene (sometimes called “seconds”)
Here’s how the process works:
Clean polystyrene is usually hand-sorted at a Material Recovery Facility (MRF), like this one in Fontana, California. Here the workers manually pick off the EPS for special processing.
The sorted polystyrene is then fed into a grinder, where it is ground up into small fragments.
The ground product is fed into a hydraulic densifier, to create blocks. Densifying the foam allows the MRF to transport 40,000 lbs. worth of product in a single truckload.
Meanwhile, at Another MRF…
Residual polystyrene products (also called “seconds”) and other plastics are sorted out automatically, using a machine called an optical sorter.
These sorted materials are then shipped to another facility (such as Dart Corporation) for processing. At this facility, the residual polystyrene/plastic mix is ground, washed and dried.
It is then fed into a thermal densifyer, where heat is used to condense the mixture into a plastic “tafffy.” The taffy is sent to the “squasher,” where it is formed into 40-pound blocks.
The recycled material is now ready to be shipped to the manufacturer, such as NEPCO, to be transformed into something useful. At NEPCO, both types of recycled polystyrene are received and broken down into fragments.
Next, the fragments are melted down and stretched out into spaghetti-like strands, so that they can easily be transformed into pellets.
These strands are then fed into a machine called a “pelletizer.” The resulting pellets are used as feedstock to produce NEPCO’s picture frame moldings.
NEPCO makes about 10 miles of molding per day, even though they’re not running at full capacity. A shortage of domestic raw materials has forced them to import recycled polystyrene from Mexico.
The wood-like material is then sold to framers and other distributors. Although some of the molding stays at NEPCO, where the company produces frames for artwork sold through eBay and Amazon.
The End of the Line
NEPCO is one of only three companies in the country who are manufacturing with recycled polystyrene. As you can see, the process requires many steps and multiple players.
If you’d like to review it again, from start to finish, here’s the complete video: