Polystyrene recycling in South Africa

Submitted by: Tholakele Nene, Friday, July 19, 2013

<p>According to the PSPC, polystyrene is 100% recyclable and can be recycled 20 times without any damage to its physical properties (Image credit: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/photo_11745006_still-life-of-two-foam-boxes.html'>winnond / 123RF Stock Photo</a>)</p>

According to the PSPC, polystyrene is 100% recyclable and can be recycled 20 times without any damage to its physical properties (Image credit: winnond / 123RF Stock Photo)

In the 2010/11 year 14% of food packaging polystyrene was recycled, according to the Polystyrene Packaging Council (PSPC) of South Africa.  A total of 3,389 tons of food packaging polystyrene was recycled out of a total of 24,200 tons produced in South Africa. This figure excludes any protective polystyrene packaging on products imported or produced locally (protective polystyrene is often used to protect appliances from damage when they are being transported). Adri Spangenberg, PSPC Director, says that this is the first year that the PSPC has calculated these figures and they have targeted a recycling growth rate of 10% per year for the upcoming years.

Types of polystyrene

There are two types of polystyrene, High Impact Polystyrene (HIP) and Expanded Polystyrene (EPS).

High impact polystyrene

This type of polystyrene is used to make toys, food containers, yoghurt tubs, some stationery, cutlery and refrigerator linings. It is strong, durable and transparent.

Expandable polystyrene

Expandable polystyrene also known as EPS is used to make protective packaging, cups, food trays, walls for houses, air conditioning units, chairs and book covers, disposable cutlery and fast food packaging to name a few. According to the PSPC, EPS is the best packaging option when dealing with high value heavy products and is often the best alternative in terms of cost, versatility and efficiency. Any product of any shape and size in the industrial or food packaging sector may be packaged in EPS, according to the PSPC. EPS is 96% air and 4% product. According to the PSPC this means it is the lightest packaging material to transport and can result in savings on fuel consumption and reducing the environmental impact of transporting products. In South Africa there is a greater demand for EPS than High Impact Polystyrene.

Recycled polystyrene products

Polystyrene is recycled into a number of different products in South Africa including picture frames, Tutudesks, Wonderbags, construction walls, coat hangers, outdoor furniture and seedling trays.

Markets for polystyrene waste

One of the current challenges faced by the PSPC according to Spangenberg is “having markets close by so that recycling can be done sustainably”. Spangenberg explains that this is an area that they have targeted for 2013 and that they will focus on “installing the necessary machines to recycle and transport polystyrene into different end markets.” Recent new recycling avenues have been developed and will make a big difference in the recycling of polystyrene, including the development of products that make use of recycled polystyrene like the Wonderbag and Tutudesk, and in the construction industry as a whole, says Spangenberg.

Education and awareness

One of the other challenges that the PSPC faces is educating people on polystyrene and how to dispose of it responsibly. According to the PSPC, polystyrene is 100% recyclable and can be recycled 20 times without any damage to its physical properties. Spangenberg explains that all polystyrene can be recycled either by contacting the PSPC, leaving polystyrene on the kerb side in places where there are services in place to collect the polystyrene, or recycling it at the nearest buy back centre. Spangenberg adds that education and awareness will be one of their focus areas in 2014.

The PSPC is currently working towards encouraging and promoting separation at source. This will mean that contaminated polystyrene will go directly to landfills and the clean polystyrene will be sent to recyclers where it is processed for reuse. 

Lessons from the United Kingdom:

According to PSPC many businesses in the UK have set up recycling schemes for their EPS. Some have their material collected uncompacted which is recycled into insulation boards for use in construction. Meanwhile others invest in compacting machinery which reduces the size of their EPS by between 40-95%. The material is then transported and can be sold to a recycler. This compacted material can also be transformed into recycled polystyrene pellets which can be used to manufacture coat hangers and picture frames.

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Tholakele Nene