Towards the full circularity of polystyrene-by Julien Renvoise, Global Circularity Manager, Trinseo

Monday, June 28 2021

Towards the full circularity of polystyrene
by Julien Renvoise, Global Circularity Manager, Trinseo

 

It’s hard to imagine a time without plastics – the material offers countless benefits in most every area of our lives. The problem is, often, the material is assessed unfairly. This is because plastics can become a nuisance in the environment or end up in landfills where they take time to decompose.

The truth is, it doesn’t have to be this way and companies don’t have to disregard the material that has proved to be so beneficial. After all, it’s easily processed, clean, hygienic, lightweight, economical, recyclable, and safe.

A plastic material like polystyrene (PS) is 100% recyclable. As opposed to the traditional “take-make-use-dispose” linear view of plastics, PS can be reclaimed, recycled, and reused infinitely, in a circular fashion.

 

 

Trinseo, a Recycling Technologies partner, has been exploring the circular potential of PS and is currently working with end use customers and partners throughout the value chain on applications for recycled polystyrene. This May, Trinseo announced that it can now supply recycled polystyrene for food contact applications with the launch of the first yogurt pot integrating recycled PS, from advanced recycling technologies. The material -Trinseo’s STYRON™ CO2RE™ CR55 Polystyrene Resin - contains 55% recycled content resulting from depolymerization. PS is a unique plastic in that it can be depolymerized directly to its monomer level. Consequently, polystyrene recycled via this method can be used widely in high quality, demanding applications including consumer electronics, packaging, household durables … and even food contact applications.

Despite the progress, the industry still has a long way to go. The main issue is reclaiming the material – the polystyrene -- which now is recognized as having considerable value. PS packaging accounts for roughly 750,000 tons of household waste in Europe, but only 20% is recycled. This means that potentially 600,000 tons of the material is in circulation (today incinerated or landfilled) waiting to be put back into our economy.

One of the reasons for progress in the area of polystyrene recycling has been the establishment of Styrenic Circular Solutions (SCS). Trinseo is a founding member of this organization and is working with the entire value chain on the challenge of circularity. This includes converters, recyclers, and brand owners. It also includes trade associations as well as universities, research centres, suppliers, and service providers. Everyone is needed to make the goal of circularity achievable.

SCS is working on the following aspects:

  • Developing and scaling up innovative technologies to recycle styrenics back into high-quality applications
  • Engaging with waste collection and sorting partners to increase the quality and quantity of waste stream output for high-tech recycling
  • Using advocacy and communications to raise visibility around styrenics and to highlight the positive qualities of PS

Trinseo is also in the midst of important research to measure the impact of recycled polystyrene (rPS). Together with SCS, we are conducting a lifecycle assessment project comparing PS produced with 100% fossil-based material with material containing recycled content. Initial results of this assessment have shown a favourable environmental footprint. Final results are expected later this year.

Furthermore, on the horizon for Trinseo is a state-of-the-art depolymerization plant. We recently announced plans to build a dedicated plant at our Tessenderlo, Belgium location with technology provided by Recycling Technologies (RT). This will convert 15,000 tons of polystyrene feedstock into recycled styrene by 2023. An intermediate small-scale pilot plant is scheduled to be operational in the UK to further optimize the RT technology.

The future is bright, especially if we continue to collaborate as an industry and along the value chain to innovate and educate on the full circularity of polystyrene. By reclaiming used plastic, we can make sure that a material, that otherwise might have ended up as post-consumer waste, not only, is reused productively but contributes to sustainable manufacturing and a positive impact on the environment.