Frequently Asked Questions

Although Expanded Polystyrene is well known for its insulating properties, there are many misconceptions about its suitability for different applications and its effect on the environment. The answers to these frequently asked questions give an insight into the real situation.

What is so good about EPS packaging?

Which packaging problems can be solved by using EPS?

Can foodstuffs be transported and stored in EPS packaging?

What demands does EPS make upon our natural resources?

Does EPS really cause a waste problem?

Can expanded Polystyrene be recycled?

What is so good about EPS packaging?

Packaging must firstly be fit for its purpose. It must offer protection of the product during transport, as well as in storage, regardless of mechanical stress, temperature changes, moisture and other exterior influences. The ideal packaging should, therefore, protect the product, keep the product stable during transport and have the potential to display the product at the point of sale. To do this, it must provide for cushioning, allow stacking, provide good thermal insulation and be light in weight for easy handling. In addition to this, the cost of the packaging itself and of the transport are very important factors. Because EPS is made up of 98% air, it is one of the most light-weight packaging materials available. Nevertheless, the foam structure offers extraordinary strength and exhibits high thermal efficiency and insulating properties. Expanded polystyrene packaging is resistant to moisture, salt, numerous types of acid and most oils. In many instances, to obtain the same amount of protection for a product as EPS offers, one would have to use about six times as much cardboard by weight, and at least the same by volume. This has to be taken into account when a company considers the waste management at the end of the distribution chain. Expanded polystyrene meets the packaging requirements of many products at a highly effective and competitive price.

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Which packaging problems can be solved by using EPS?

A wide range of physical properties and the individual adaptability of this foam, permit economical solutions to the most varied packaging problems which differ greatly, depending on the required level of protection for the many different products. They range from fish boxes to combination packaging with shrink-wrap for washing machines: fully moulded containers to protect against exterior influences of any kind (self-supporting), half-moulded inserts, corner pieces and side elements, boxes and trays for stacking, dividing and collection inserts, pallets for transport or assembly as well as heat or cold insulation packages. Indeed the effectiveness of EPS to protect the most delicate of products, means that it is now often used as the core component of bicycle helmets.

At all times, the basic function, i.e. the optimum protection of the packaged product, has to be the first consideration when deciding on the type of packaging material to be used. Secondly, of course, the cost of packaging should be kept to an absolute minimum. Expanded polystyrene packaging has proven to meet these essential criteria, time and time again.

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Can Foodstuffs be transported and stored in EPS packaging?

Yes

The evaluation of synthetic products in regard to health implications as well as the required test methods have been documented as guidelines by various nations. Given the current status of science and technology, these recommendations determine the conditions under which a consumer item made of synthetic material meets the requirements of food and consumer products law.

EPS, with its composition, does meet the requirements of the pertinent recommendations.

Therefore, based on above evaluation, there are absolutely no restrictions to the use of EPS as packaging or as user item.

For example EPS fish boxes have found world-wide acceptance. Similarly fruits and vegetables are packaged in EPS boxes. This not only for hygienic reasons but also due to the fact that EPS foam packages maintain a certain temperature over long periods of time - making EPS an ideal packaging material.

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What demands does EPS make upon our natural resources?

Since expanded polystyrene uses oil and petrochemicals in its manufacture, it does call upon the earth's natural resources. When compared with other areas of industry, however, this resource consumption is very small indeed.

Total plastics packaging manufacture uses no more than 2% of the worlds oil production. Expanded polystyrene packaging uses less than 0.1% of this natural resource. Over 86% of the oil consumed is used as a fuel for industry transport and in our homes.

The current use of plastics in Europe per capita is about 30kg a year: the amount of oil used for plastics manufacture therefore would only be sufficient for a 300km car journey. Correspondingly, EPS oil usage would be insufficient to allow a car to travel to the local supermarket.

Expanded polystyrene does not pose any threat to the ozone layer. It does not, nor has it ever used chlorofluorocarbons in its manufacture or use. Instead, it uses pentane as its blowing agent during the production process. Chemically, pentane is related to methane, a natural gas deriving from a variety of natural sources which quickly decomposes in the atmosphere.

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Does EPS really cause a waste problem?

Because expanded polystyrene consists of 98% air as well as often being white in colour, it is highly visible when disposed of. Whilst this visibility is of great benefit during the separation and sorting process following collection, it often leads to confusion as to the actual quantities of used EPS produced.

The majority of consumer goods packaged in EPS are high value and unlikely to require regular replacements, for example televisions, video equipment and washing machines. For this reason the public is unlikely to find EPS in their own homes on a regular basis.

Customers of the EPS industry are more likely to find larger quantities of used EPS packaging in their waste stream because of the nature of their business.

Because of the development of new markets for recycled products and the subsequent rise in the demand for used material, EPS has an increasingly high value.

IF used EPS packaging is clean and available at one point in sufficient quantity, it may well be environmentally and economically sound practice to retrieve it for subsequent recycling or recovery. If you wish to have your used material collected you should contact your national plastics association who will advise you of the availability of this service in your own area.

When mechanical recycling does not make environmental sense, both feedstock recycling and energy recovery (where available) can be suitable alternatives. Countries with a strong environmental track record such as Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland all rely heavily on energy recovery. A significant percentage of all used materials are combusted each year to produce energy for heating and lighting in these countries.

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Can Expanded Polystyrene be recycled?

Yes

Expanded polystyrene packaging can be and is being recycled throughout Europe and South Africa, and in many other parts of the world also.

However, as with any product, it is not environmentally sound practice to retrieve used EPS packaging for recycling or recovery if more energy is used in doing so than could actually be gained from the used material itself. We must take great care not to use up more resource through recycling than we can save. Ecologically, the resource equations must balance.

In common with most packaging materials, a variety of waste management options already exists for expanded polystyrene. Whilst used to differing degrees throughout Europe, each option is considered to have equal standing. Known as the 4 R's, these options are Reduce, Re-use, Recover, Recycle. Landfill is considered a last resort for disposal.

Reduce: reduction in the use of natural resources through the light weighting of products and technical developments in the decrease of energy used during production.

Re-use: multi-trip use of EPS foam or re-use in a different or modified form.

Recycle: the reprocessing in a production process of the waste materials for the original purpose or other purposes including organic recycling but excluding energy recovery.

Recover: retrieval of inherent calorific value through incineration with heat/energy recovery. EPS' calorific value is higher than that of coal.

Landfill: Least acceptable because it represents a missed opportunity to recover valuable resources. When unavoidable, EPS remains inert, is non-toxic, odour-free and non-biodegradable by design. It does not, therefore, add to ground water spillage, or to atmosphere emissions.

See also information in Isowood pertinent to this topic.

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