Polystyrene is a type of plastic made from a chemical called styrene. It is most recognisable in its expanded form – the white, foam-like material we use for takeaway containers, insulation, and packaging. Expanded polystyrene is lightweight, economic to manufacture, and very strong and temperature resistant, making it a versatile material with many uses.
However, it is often cast in a negative light. Many people believe the material is difficult or impossible to recycle and that using it is bad for the environment. In reality, polystyrene is 100% recyclable and relatively clean to manufacture, and South Africa has a thriving polystyrene recycling industry.
Polystyrene Has a Smaller Carbon Footprint Than Other Packaging Materials
Polystyrene is a controversial material, and many countries have banned its use for takeaway containers and other types of single-use packaging. However, this approach doesn’t work in every context.
The CSIR conducted a life cycle and socio-economic assessment on polystyrene containers in 2022. The study found that polystyrene has the lowest carbon footprint of all packaging materials widely available in the country. Here’s why:
- Expanded polystyrene is 96% air, and one polystyrene takeaway container weighs 75% less than other types of containers on average. Its lightweight nature means you can transport more polystyrene using less fuel.
- Expanded polystyrene is only 4% plastic, meaning it deposits less non-biodegradable waste into the environment than denser packaging materials when sent to landfill.
- Manufacturing polystyrene does not produce any solid waste.
- It uses less water and electricity to produce polystyrene than it does to produce many other packaging materials.
- It is more economical than many other single-use packaging materials, making it more accessible to low-income groups in South Africa.
- Polystyrene is manufactured in South Africa, creating jobs and contributing to our economy.
- Most of the environmental impact of polystyrene comes from extracting raw materials from the earth, which we can reduce through recycling.
- It is 100% recyclable, with established end-markets for recycled polystyrene readily available.
While it is true that you can’t use dirty polystyrene takeaway containers to make brand-new containers, the same is true for all other types of single-use food packaging. Food-safe packaging must meet strict hygiene standards, so it is generally made from virgin materials.
However, in South Africa, used polystyrene is a sought-after raw material with applications in other industries. We can use recycled single-use polystyrene to make products with life spans of over 50 years, for example, lightweight bricks in the construction industry.
Polystyrene is 100% Recyclable
Most recycling happens through private waste management companies in South Africa. When these companies say they don’t collect polystyrene, it can lead their customers to believe the material is not recyclable. However, polystyrene is a type of plastic, and all plastics are recyclable with the right technology.
The major reason some recycling companies don’t collect polystyrene is because they don’t have a buyer for it once it’s been collected. Connecting buyers and sellers of polystyrene will increase the recycling rates and thereby improve the environmental impact of the material. The technology and demand exist and are well-established in the South African market.
Dozens of South African companies currently use recycled polystyrene to create eco-friendly products in the building and decor industries.
Recycled Polystyrene in the Decor Industry
Manufacturers in the decorating industry use polystyrene to make mirror and picture frames, cornices, and skirting boards to eliminate the use of virgin materials. This process requires separation at the source to collect clean polystyrene free from dirt and grease, such as food packaging, insulation, or appliance packaging.
The recyclers in the decor market use ingot machines to remove the air from the polystyrene, making it denser, more compact, and easier to transport. These polystyrene ingots become the raw materials for eco-friendly decor products. South African companies that use recycled polystyrene in the decorating industry include Supreme Mouldings and many others.
Recycled Polystyrene in the Construction Industry
Manufacturers can use polystyrene as an aggregate to produce lightweight, eco-friendly concrete products. Unlike in the decorating sector, the polystyrene used by the building industry does not need to be spotlessly clean. Many recyclers turn used seedling trays and vegetable boxes that may contain traces of soil into high-quality bricks and pavers.
Envirolite is one of the leading manufacturers of eco-friendly bricks in South Africa. The company turns all forms of expanded polystyrene, including takeaway cups and containers, into “forever products” that never need to be thrown away. Envirolite concrete weighs 75% less than standard concrete, so transporting it is also highly energy efficient.
Concrete made from recycled polystyrene is suitable for almost any application, from high-end shopping centres to sustainable RDP houses. It comes in diverse strengths, and contractors can use it for floors, walls, outdoor furniture, and even statues.
How To Get Involved in Polystyrene Recycling
As with all other recyclables, separation at the source is the first step to recovering polystyrene for recycling. If you have access to used coffee cups, takeaway containers, meat and fruit trays, and protective packaging, you can sell them to companies that use polystyrene to make new products. The following organisations buy used polystyrene in South Africa:
- Supreme Mouldings
Polystyrene is a valuable resource we can use to build homes, and it should not go in the rubbish bin. eWASA is a registered producer responsibility organisation (PRO) that works within the packaging industry to help producers develop sustainable end-of-life solutions for their products. We work with manufacturers and distributors to collect and recycle polystyrene and other packaging – contact us for more information.
- Interview with Adri Spangenberg, Packaging Executive at eWASA.
- BBC News: Why New York banned polystyrene foam
- Container and packaging: plastic is more energy efficient
- CSIR: Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment (LCSA) of material alternatives for take-out containers (2022).
- EPS Packaging group: Expanded polystyrene and the environment
- Envirolite Concrete: Envirolite promo video
- Infrastructure News: Polystyrene recycling in SA increased by 19 % during 2019
- Isowall Group: Can you add polystyrene in the recycling bin?