Tuesday, February 19th, 2013
The first North American municipal program using thermal condenser technology for recycling expanded polystyrene (EPS, often mistakenly called Styrofoam) kicked off in July 2011 in Grand Prairie, AB, Canada, and it’s working very well.
Over two metric tons of EPS already have been kept out of the local landfill. This is a moneymaking proposition for Aquatera Utilities, the regional provider of water, wastewater and solid waste services, which is itself a shining example of regional cooperation.
Aquatera is owned by the City of Grand Prairie, Grand Prairie County, and the smaller town of Sexsmith, and since 2003 it has returned 25 million Canadian dollars to its shareholders in cash dividends and franchise fees. If you’re looking for Grand Prairie on a map, it’s about 600 miles north of the U.S. border with Alberta Province, and 450 km to the northwest of Edmonton. It’s also on the leading edge of municipal recycling.
Anyone who acquired new appliances or electronics gear in the past few decades has encountered EPS. It’s the solid white foam that kept your goodies from being damaged in shipment despite weighing nearly nothing. As protective as it is, EPS is about 98% air. Even if your town has a good recycling program, chances are it excludes EPS. Browse the Internet
for recycling information and you soon will be told that it is not possible to recycle EPS — at all.
Don’t tell that to Aquatera, and for sure don’t say it to Pana Chemical Co., the supplier of the electro-thermal densifier (condenser) that Aquatera uses. Pana has installed over 1500 of those systems in its home country of
Japan and has been recycling EPS itself for almost 30 years.
The Pana densifier heats the EPS to about 180ºF, essentially removing the 98 percent that was air. That reduces the material’s volume at a 50 to 1 ratio. The result is 14-pound ingots that are palletized, shipped to Pana in Japan and recycled into rigid plastic parts and components for the likes of Toyota, Toshiba, Canon, Nintendo and Sony, to name a few.
Aquatera and its proprietors saw EPS as a contaminant in their waste stream. However, they noticed that it was a DOW Exchange Commodity that tracks the price of oil and over many years has averaged around $0.30/pound. So now Aquatera is happy to get it from local residents, and future growth is foreseen from vendors of electronics and furniture, the construction sector, and by adding more collection points.
For reference, those two metric tons of EPS already diverted from the landfill could fill five school buses. After densification, it was about the volume of a refrigerator.
Styrofoam is a trademark of Dow Chemical Co. for its closed-cell polystyrene foam that ‘s used primarily as building insulation. It is not the same as EPS.
Walmart created an interesting program to recycle the EPS it receives with products. Special-needs employers near its distribution centers that have densifying equipment process Walmart’s EPS material and ship it to a company that extrudes it to make picture frames that are sold back to Walmart. That’s a nice piece of creative closed-loop EPS recycling — considering the Internet tells us it can’t be recycled at all.