White, light and hard (to recycle)

Posted by on Sep 10, 2012

Polystyrene in China salvaged from the sea, presumably for recycling

It’s unsurprising to many that we’re big on recycling at Ecocreative. We feel pretty lucky to be in South Australia, home to Australia’s only container deposit legislation and amidst bevy of enlightened companies in the waste and recycling industry.

You’ll read a lot about recycling when exploring themes with our work or checking the small print on what we produce, though we’d like to consider state of one of the greatly neglected recyclable materials: expanded polystyrene (or EPS). EPS is that bulky, bright white, super-light plastic packaging foam that helps keep our drinks on ice and our new appliances from harm.

Polystyrene is made of a blend of chemicals and petroleum products and in its expanded form is around 98% air. Around the time of World War II, a clever scientist at the Dow Chemical Company was looking to develop a flexible type of insulation that wasn’t as brittle as regular polystyrene and promptly presented Styrofoam to the world.

There’s no doubt that expanded polystyrene has been an influential and enduring invention. It comes from a time when the USA’s get up and go was driving the world economy, a phenomenon that is largely responsible for the quality of life — and environmental problems — we experience today. Trouble is, because it is so cheap to manufacture and so easy to custom mould for single use, it’s still in use!

Our (ridiculous) journey to polystyrene recycling

Last time we had a serious polystyrene surplus, one of our team took the foam home and insulated part of his shed — not bad for a once-off solution. This time, we had to consider recycling. We’d stockpiled quite a collection of foam, mostly from our office printer toner packaging. We started hunting for options using official channels, seeking help from the waste management authority and the city council — no response.

The natural next step was to chase down a plastics recycling truck and jot down their number. We were quite hopeful this would solve our problem, though the amount we had was laughably small (yes, they actually laughed), and they ‘didn’t drive their trucks through our part of the city anyway’.

So we took to Twitter and something came up: ‘If you get stuck, nail polish will dissolve it back to a core clump of raw ingredients’. Good idea, Marcus, though breaking out the acetone would save our space issues, but leave us with a plasticky non-aerated gloop. Ewww.

In near desperation, after giving life to our polystyrene in the form of a foam man, we sought the help of our friends (and clients) Jeffries, the compost, soil and mulch experts. Surely they’d know someone! Well, it turned out they were able to help us make light of our predicament, putting us in touch with Cool Foam who said they’d be happy to recycle our EPS if we packed it up and sent it on its merry way. So we did:

For a start, some progress is being made

This elaborate exercise demonstrates how impractical it can be to ensure something that has no place in the natural environment finds a viable future. The laughable amount of EPS we recycled is destined to be reincarnated, so we’re leaving someone else with a big white, well, elephant. There is some hope on the recycling option, though. We recently learned of a great project under the Australian Packaging Covenant that will divert 40,000 cubic metres (or 600 tonnes) from landfill from companies, especially manufacturers. That’s great for one of the commercial sectors of our community, but what about the general member of the public who just has too little foam to recycle?

We often make the point that designers are responsible for most of a product’s impact. It’s still rare for packaging to be considered early enough in the design process. Factors such as how large (or rather, small) a package will need to be, how it will be packed, transported, stored and displayed are not considered early enough. It’s easy to tell when you unpack a whole range of consumer goods. You can be pretty confident that a cheap, poorly designed product will be clad in cheap, awkward moulded EPS and other plastic foams and films, with much of a packing carton’s volume to be taken up by that white, light hard-to-recycle foam.When confronted with such a diabolical material and the recycling tragicomedy, it can help to turn to nature (happily it’s not strewn with plastic litter).

Is mushroom technology the disruptive thinking we need?

Although there is some merit in considering the re-useability of liquified polystyrene, the investment, infrastructure and systemic change needed to make this viable hardly bears thinking about. This is where big ideas, like mushroom technology, come in handy. Although this idea seems like magic, the inventors of this terrific alternative to EPS are not tripping — mushrooms may indeed hold the secret to replacing plastic foams.

Ecovative design have developed a whole manufacturing process that grows a fungal alternative to EPS (check out their great video). And if you’re a designer, inventor, manufacturer or packaging specialist, make an enquiry at Ecovative’s commercial site.

 How about you and your packaging struggles?

We’d love to know about your polystyrene struggles or any other gripes about unsustainable materials or packaging. Even better, if you have discovered some creative approaches to packaging that avoid the need for throwaway material, we’d love to learn more.