As the styrenics value chain, we are well aware of the ways our material is central to everyday life, from food contact to healthcare applications, from home insulation to child safety in the form of bicycle helmets. We know about the highly recyclable nature of polystyrene, and its unique capacity for circularity. As industry, we know that not only is it suitable for recycling methods such as mechanical recycling and dissolution, but in addition, polystyrene has a unique intrinsic potential to be recycled back to its original monomer. Using chemical recycling processes, styrene can be retained in high yield and in ‘virgin’ purity. Research as well as successful pilot production runs at styrenics sites or together with external partners have delivered the practical proof. Our material can have multiple lives, being used over and over again in high quality applications, even for food contact. Yet, does the world around us already have the same understanding? Be it regarding the enormous capacity of styrenics for full circularity? Or be it regarding the crucial role our material will play in delivering food safety for recycled content for converters, brand owners and, and consequently peace of mind for end consumers? The ability to deliver food safety of recycled content constitutes an essential plank for the 2025 recycled plastics uptake goals of the European Commission.
The industry has formed a new organisation, Styrenics Circular Solutions (SCS), to propel the circularity of styrenics by working to achieve a comprehensive approach to recycling polystyrene and expanded polystyrene (EPS) products. The core aim of SCS in this initiative is to significantly increase circularity and recycling rates of styrenics.
We are engaging with the whole value chain to develop game-changing recycling technologies. We are working to build the partnerships required for large-scale polystyrene recycling, from converters, brand owners, waste management companies, recyclers to the authorities. We are ambitious about driving the increased collection and sorting of post-consumer polystyrene waste. We are also building a close link between waste stream volumes of relevant quality and the respective high-tech recycling processes, as well as building the market for the recycled material.
The styrenics industry has a vast knowledge of the science that demonstrates polystyrene’s recyclability. It is a promising material for mechanical recycling since its properties are largely stable even after multiple processing. The material is also excellently suited for dissolution, an environmentally friendly, low CO2-emitting process, which of purifies mixed plastics by selective dissolution of one target polymer, while the
other polymers remain unaffected. Our third technology is depolymerisation, which is a game-changing plastic-to-plastic chemical recycling technology that produces monomers which can be used as building block for new, virgin and ultimately food quality polymer. Polystyrene is especially suited for depolymerisation due to the material’s low so-called ‘ceiling temperature’ of approximately 350 degrees Celsius, beyond which polystyrene can be returned into its monomer styrene. The particular benefit of polystyrene in using these innovative recycling technologies is that its monomer styrene can be retained in high yield and in ‘virgin’ purity. As a consequence, this allows the polymerising of styrene again to the highest possible quantities. This truly circular plastic-to-plastic chemical recycling supports polystyrene’s excellent position as highly recyclable plastic. We are working with impetus on all three recycling methods to deliver on this unique value proposition.
But at the same time, we must work to ensure that there is a much broader and deeper understanding on the part of the public, policymakers and the media that polystyrene is designed by nature for recycling, and that the development of the technology is well underway. And, with 800.000 tons of polystyrene sold into the EU packaging market annually, also the ‘critical mass’ is there, as well as the necessary sorting technologies. We must work together, not only on the delivery, but also on promoting awareness of our material’s capacity for circularity. If we can create this awareness and change attitudes, we can build wider support for our industry’s drive towards circularity. Then, we can also raise the support we need in terms of collection, sorting and preparation practices of post-consumer waste to supply the recycling processes. For this, strong backing from the public, policy-makers, regional authorities and businesses all along the value chain is essential.
With polystyrene we genuinely have the unique opportunity to truly close the loop. A full recycling back to the original monomer and virgin-identical polystyrene is possible. Recycled polystyrene can form a key part of the EU’s target to use least 10 million tons of recycled plastics content in new products. Our industry is already off and running towards the deployment of different recycling technologies. The collective prize is enormous, but the opportunity to achieve increased circularity with polystyrene is very realistic. The momentum is here and we welcome more companies to join us.