Foam Recycling Coalition
In 2014, the Foam Recycling Coalition (FRC) was launched to support increased recycling of foodservice packaging made from foam polystyrene. In order to meet this objective, the FRC shares general information on foam recycling, provides technical resources and offers funding assistance to programs ready to start or strengthen post-consumer foam recycling.
In addition to encouraging the recycling of foam foodservice packaging (i.e. cups, plates, bowls, clamshells and cafeteria trays), the efforts of the FRC also extend to other foam food packaging like egg cartons and meat trays.
Foam Recycling Grants
Since 2015, the FRC has awarded grants used to increase foam recycling (see below for more details). Additional grant recipients will be announced on an ongoing basis. For more details on the grant program and to download a grant application form, click here.
Alpine Waste and Recycling, Commerce City, Colorado - $45,000
Colchester County, Nova Scotia, Canada - $50,000
Athens-Clarke County, Georgia - $29,000
McLeod County, Minnesota - $50,000
City of Redding, California - $49,000
The process to recycle foam is similar to that of other recyclables. In the case of foam products, a special compactor – called a “densifier” – may be used in the processing of the material. Why? Foam products are over 90% air, so densifying it allows the material to be sold and transported more cost-effectively. To give you an example, a 48-foot truckload of baled foam polystyrene weighs only around 16,000 pounds, whereas a truckload of densified foam polystyrene weighs 40,000 pounds.
Here’s a brief overview of the process to recycle foam:
A short 10-minute video that demonstrates the process of foam recycling may be found here.Details on Foam Recycling Equipment
As described above, certain equipment is needed to recycle foam cost-effectively. The densifier is perhaps the most critical piece of equipment.
When selecting a densifier, keep in mind that municipal recycling streams vary, as do foam types. Foam polystyrene can have different density, thickness and levels of rigidity, all which impact the effectiveness of the equipment. In a MRF environment, a hydraulic densifier may be a better option, since it can handle foam polystyrene with mixed densities, whereas a screw drive densifier should work well in a location with a more uniform feedstock, like a cafeteria. As with all new equipment purchases, it is highly recommended that you run a trial prior to purchasing any equipment.
Here’s a brief description of the four basic types of foam densifiers currently in the marketplace, as well as companies that manufacture this equipment:
Hydraulic densifiers use hydraulic pressure to compact the foam. With a continuous operation model, the foam is extruded into a dense log. They can effectively process various densities of foam at the same time without melting in the machine.
Screw drive densifiers use augers to push foam through a chamber at a specific speed and pressure to densify the foam into a solid log or block. They perform best when the feed stock is limited to one density of foam at a time. Some companies, however, have made advances that allow their screw drive densifiers to also process mixed densities of foam.
Hybrid densifiers combine the best features of the screw drive densifier system with those of the hydraulic densifier system, resulting in an efficient way to process recycled foam. Hybrid cold compaction densifiers use augers and hydraulics to compact foam with no melting.
Technical Process & Engineering Inc., Lehighton, PA
- Thermal densifiers use heat to melt foam into a taffy-like state. The foam is extruded in the form of a rope and then transferred to containers. Thermal densifiers can effectively process various densities of foam.
Please note that inclusion of these vendors does not indicate an endorsement of these companies by FPI and/or the FRC, simply an acknowledgement that they sell densifiers. In addition, this list may not be complete. If you sell polystyrene foam densifiers and would like your company to be listed here, please send your request to Natha Dempsey.
In addition to a densifier, a grinder will be needed, as well as conveying systems and electrical installations, to recycle foam. A list of additional equipment manufacturers may be found in the report “Unlocking the EPS Recovery Potential: Technologies Enabling Efficient Collection and Recovery,” published by SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association. Click here for a copy of the report.
A typical layout of a MRF processing foam polystyrene can be seen in the drawing below:
Foam recycling can take place in locations other than a MRF, too. For example, many businesses with large volumes of protective packaging recycle the material on-site. For more information on implementing and administering a successful on-site protective packaging program, please download the “PS: Think Recycling” brochure from EPS-IA.
FAQs on Foam Recycling
How much foam polystyrene can I expect to receive? While it is difficult to estimate foam tonnage at the local level, data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's annual municipal solid waste (MSW) characterization report shows that foam polystyrene contributes roughly one percent to the MSW stream.
How much space is needed for additional equipment? An efficient grinder and densification system requires as little as 85 square feet of space. In locations where space is limited, grinders can be housed separately from the densifiers. In these implementations, blowers are used to transport the ground up foam polystyrene through a tube to a hopper, which can be located as far as 100 feet away from the grinder.
I have a baler; will that work to densify foam? Densifiers are used to compact loose foam products into dense blocks for transportation or storage prior to recycling. While traditional balers can be used to compact the foam polystyrene, they do not work very well.
What do grinders and/or densifiers cost? New densifier systems – which include both a grinder and densifier – cost as little as $18,000 - $20,000 for units that will process 100 pounds of loose foam polystyrene per hour. These are better suited for single-site collection programs (like a school), commercial loading dock environments, or drop-off programs that want to densify on-site. Larger densifier systems that will process 500 pounds of loose foam polystyrene per hour cost around $45,000 - $50,000. These are better suited for MRFs.
OK, so foam can be recycled, but is anyone REALLY doing it? Yes. Check out this map that shows where in the U.S. and Canada foam polystyrene is being recycled, either through curbside or drop off programs.
Is there demand for recycled polystyrene and end markets willing to buy the material? Yes. According to a study conducted in 2014, demand for recycled polystyrene is growing, both domestically and internationally. More specifically, the study identified nearly 140 processors, recyclers and end users in the U.S. and Canada. Click here for a copy of the report. For a directory of companies looking to buy recycled foam, please click here.
Isn't foam foodservice packaging too dirty to recycle? No. Some have expressed concern about food residue on foodservice packaging, including foam. But, two recent studies have shown that foodservice packaging is no more contaminated with food than other commonly recycled food-contact items like bottles, jars or cans. Click here for the overview of the 2013 and 2014 studies, and click here to listen to a webinar on this topic.