Polystyrene: supporting the EU’s plastic recycling targets

How this highly recyclable polymer can contribute towards the EU’s 2025 recycling targets.
Image provided by Styrenics Circular Solutions

By Jens Kathmann

Jens Kathmann is the Secretary-General of Styrenics Circular Solutions, the joint industry initiative driving the acceleration of styrenics recycling through innovative technologies and partner-driven solutions.

24 Sep 2021

In 2018, EU law set the binding target to recycle at least 50 percent of all plastic packaging waste by 2025, and 55 percent by 2030.

The European Plastics Strategy, adopted by the European Commission in the same year, calls for all plastic packaging in the Single Market to be either reusable or recyclable by 2030.

The plastics industry, including the polystyrene sector, fully supports these targets and goals.

There is a growing understanding among stakeholders across the supply chain, as well as policymakers, that polystyrene’s intrinsic capacity for full circularity, including for food contact applications, allows the styrene’s supply chain to make a significant contribution to the circular economy.

“The broad range of technologies will continue to help accelerate the transition of the polystyrene sector to a fully circular one.”

A positive factor is the volume of polystyrene feedstock available for recycling,  reaching a critical mass’ of over 800kt, placed in the packaging market each year.

Polystyrene is very easy to sort with existing technology. With tests demonstrating that polystyrene packaging waste, from European countries, overwhelmingly consists of food packaging.

Meeting regulatory requirements for closing the loop back to food contact material. In addition, polystyrene’s inherent properties, makes it highly suitable for multiple closed-loop recycling without quality loss.

Polystyrene lends itself exceptionally well to several recycling technologies, including food contact mechanical recycling, dissolution and depolymerisation.

The broad range of technologies will continue to help accelerate the transition of the polystyrene sector to a fully circular one.

As part of our ambition to achieve full circularity in line with and exceeding EU targets. The supply chain has been pursuing three innovative technologies which has  mobilised all the capabilities available.  

For some of its members, such as chemical manufacturers, depolymerisation will be an obvious choice.

Food contact mechanical recycling will particularly appeal to others, as it is easily accessible by any market player.

A game-changing moment for polystyrene this year has been the successful completion of several ‘challenge tests’ by Styrenics Circular Solutions (SCS).

This  initiative increases the circularity of styrenic polymers.

The tests confirmed the excellent mechanical recyclability of polystyrene (PS) into food contact material.

They demonstrated the high cleaning efficiency of the mechanical recycling technology for polystyrene, which removes impurities originating from waste streams.

The results are supported by the material’s intrinsic properties as a low diffusion polymer, which prevents waste impurities entering and migrating through the polymer matrix.

These challenge test results have been enabling a series of applications for EU authorisation of polystyrene recycling processes to food contact material.

We expect the first positive opinion of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in due course, which will confirm that we can use PS safely in food packaging.

Circular polystyrene has also received the all-important seal of approval from the converters.

The tests discovered that mechanically recycled polystyrene is indeed a ‘drop-in’ solution in existing production equipment. Such as extrusion, thermoforming, form fill and seal without any changes or adaptions.

It behaves exactly as new and delivers the same properties, look, and feel, right down to the so-called snap-ability that is unique to polystyrene, such as  separating a yoghurt pot from a multipack.

Another significant seal of approval came in the form of the recent Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that confirmed the very favourable environmental footprint of polystyrene.

The LCA showed excellent results for the three closed-loop recycling processes back to food contact material: high purity mechanical recycling, dissolution and depolymerisation, compared to the end-of-life option incineration, as well as the production of virgin polystyrene.

Food contact mechanical recycling, of polystyrene feedstock from separate collection, saves approximately 80 percent of CO2 emissions, compared to incineration and conventional production of new polystyrene.

Dissolution and depolymerisation also saves approximately 75 percent of CO2 emissions.

The LCA means we now have unambiguous, clear data that polystyrene is not only easily sortable and uniquely circular, but it also comes with a significantly reduced carbon footprint for all three of its recycling routes.

This clearly underlines the important place that polystyrene will have in the circular economy.

Polystyrene combines all elements to achieve this: great intrinsic qualities of the polymer, multiple complementary recycling pathways to full circularity to food contact standards and their contribution to climate neutrality, brought together by and in a supply chain, dedicated to completing the ongoing transition.

This article reflects the views of the author and not the views of The Parliament Magazine or of the Dods Group