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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Breakthroughs in EPS, PE, PP Recycling Bring Plastics Closer to Circularity

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, only 2 percent of the 78 million tons of plastic used each year for packaging is actually recycled. The remaining 98 percent finds its way into landfills, incineration plants and the environment. New innovations and initiatives from across the U.S. and Canada, however, are offering new solutions to tackle the ever-growing plastics problem.

Part of the problem lies within product composition: Currently, polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) — which comprise the majority of the world’s plastics — cannot be repurposed together. But Geoffrey Coates, professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Tisch University, and a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota may have found a solution.

Together, the group — funded by the Center for Sustainable Polymers — has developed a multi-block polymer that creates a new and mechanically tough polymer (superior to a diblock polymer) when added to a mix of PE and PP. To test the new polymer, researchers welded two strips of plastic together using different multi-block polymers as adhesives. The strips were then mechanically pulled apart. It was during this process that the strength of the new tetrablock polymer was revealed. The plastic welded with the tetrablock additive outperformed the diblock polymers, so much so that the plastic strips, rather than the welding, broke.

“People have done things like this before, but they'll typically put 10 percent of a soft material, so you don’t get the nice plastic properties, you get something that’s not quite as good as the original material,” said Coates.

“What’s exciting about this is we can go to as low as 1 percent of our additive and you get a plastic alloy that really has super great properties.”

James Eagen, lead author of the report detailing the group’s work, said that the new polymer’s potential goes well beyond the realm of recycling. The tetrablock polymer could lead to a whole new class of mechanically tough polymer blends.

“If you could make milk jug with 30 percent less material because it’s mechanically better, think of the sustainability of that,” Eagen said. “You’re using less plastic, less oil, you have less stuff to recycle, you have a lighter product that uses less fossil fuel to move it.”

Coates and his crew aren’t the only ones making progress with plastics — six companies from across the U.S. and Canada have been nominated for their work with expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging.

Despite recent product bans and corporate announcements to eliminate foam plastics, recycling of EPS continues to grow. While bans are heavily cited as sustainable initiatives, they tend to disregard the benefits of EPS, which include a lower carbon footprint and reduced weight and fuel consumption. Bans often lack the backing of metrics on the environmental tradeoffs for alternative materials and fail to establish evidence that environmental benefits were actually achieved by their use. EPS as a material is recyclable and more locations that can process EPS continue to open.

Award nominees include:

    • Agilyx Corporation of Tigard, Oregon, for developing the first commercial pyrolysis system for EPS;
    • Alpine Waste & Recycling of Denver, Colorado, for accepting curbside EPS and issuing an automated sustainability report to keep the general public in the loop;
    • Colchester County, Nova Scotia, for upgrading its material recovery facility to accept EPS;
    • Demand Products of Alpharetta, Georgia, for creating a hydraulic pressure EPS compacting machine to produce more consistent densified EPS;
    • Foam Cycle LLC of Augusta, New Jersey, for its patent-pending reprocessing system to meet EPS recycling needs at the local level;
    • Mansonville Plastics Group of Surrey, British Columbia, who increased awareness about EPS recycling and reuse and for bringing attention to EPS recycling at a federal level in Canada; and
    • Plastilite Corporation in Omaha, Nebraska, for working with the Henry Doorly Zoo by organizing a multi-faceted event to collect and publicize EPS as well as educate the public.

    In addition to the innovations themselves, initiatives will be judged on how they have contributed to EPS waste management improvements. The judges for this year’s award include Nina Goodrich, Executive Director of GreenBlue, Brenda Pulley, Vice President of Recycling for Keep America Beautiful, Lisa McTigue Pierce, Executive Editor of Packaging Digest, and Patty Moore, President and CEO of Moore Recycling Associates, Inc.

    The winner of the 2017 Excellence in EPS Recycling award will be announced at the upcoming EPS EXPO 2017 in Charleston, South Carolina.