Expanded polystyrene (EPS) thanks to its outstanding properties in terms of thermal insulation, protection and food safety, is typically used in containers to store, transport and present fresh food, for example fish. Some 335 000 tonnes of EPS is used for this purpose in the EU every year, but only 25% of this type of packaging is recycled in Spain and other southern European countries (although EPS boxes are technically 100% recyclable and effectively recycled up to 80% in northern countries as Denmark). Around 30% is incinerated and the rest is landfilled. The low recycling rate is due to the difficulty collecting low quantities and removing food residues and odours from used EPS. EU waste management policy calls for increased rates of plastic recycling, so new solutions are needed for treating contaminated EPS waste, in particular when used to package fish.
The LIFE EPS SURE project aimed to provide an innovative methodology and a set of technological solutions for managing waste EPS fish boxes. The recycled material would have properties similar to virgin polystyrene for food contact packaging and would be used to produce yoghurt and dairypots and trays for fresh food.
Specifically, the project aimed to:
The LIFE EPS SURE project developed a way of recycling fish boxes made from EPS, transforming them into PS food contact packaging, thereby turning waste into a highly valuable resource and thus avoiding landfill and littering. The project?s treatment process in TOTAL PETROCHEMICAL Pilot plant reactor is similar to the current treatment of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), but it is a closed loop, thereby guaranteeing that more than 99% of the material to be recycled is food contact origin.
The project worked with the AIMPLAS Technological Institute on testing the recycled material under the protocols established by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Specific chemical analyses known as challenge tests were conducted to evaluate the efficiency of the process and determine its capacity to achieve a level of decontamination compatible with food contact applications. The results of the challenge tests demonstrated that EPS material recycled as r-PS pellets with different recycling percentages is suitable for food use in accordance with the criteria established in the tests, based on those currently applied by the EFSA as the benchmark to evaluate PET results. COEXPAN also demonstrated the technical viability of the recycled polystyrene, allowing it to be extruded in an industrial process, mechanical and food migration tests are conducted with satisfactory results.
However, the overall cost of the process, including collection and pre-treatment, is still too high, and the r-PS product obtained is more expensive than virgin raw materials at present. It is therefore necessary to optimise collection and promote policies to encourage recycling. The implementation of such measures could drive the industrialisation of the solution.
The LIFE EPS SURE project was fully aligned with priorities established in the EU Plastics Strategy, the EU Waste Framework Directive and the Circular Economy Package, namely by reducing the need for landfilling of the EPS waste, reaching almost a 100% recycling rate; and supplying valuable secondary raw materials.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Communication Plan (see "Read more" section).