September 12, 2019

The EPA delivered better alternatives to polystyrene foam…21 years ago


2 decades later companies are now switching to better packaging materials.

The EPA delivered better alternatives to polystyrene foam 2 decades ago. 21 years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a report titled “Demonstration of Packaging Materials Alternatives to Expanded Polystyrene.” In their assessment, they tested different materials and presented superior alternatives. Two decades later, a flurry of legislation focused on banning EPS from the food packaging industry has swept through the United States.

Public support for the elimination of EPS and unsustainable packaging materials continues to build steam. Major companies, including IKEA, Target, and Dell Computers, have switched away from using polystyrene for their packaging.

The global trend away from EPS grows, with pending legislation, increasing consumer activity, and new sustainable initiatives from companies making the switch to more sustainable packaging. In light of this, we wanted to go back to 1998 and discuss the EPA’s report and why businesses are leaving it behind for better, more sustainable packaging.


Environmental dangers of polystyrene foam

Polystyrene foam poses a serious environmental threat for a variety of reasons. Though many companies describe polystyrene as ‘recyclable,’ the reality of the situation is not so simple. Polystyrene recycling is extremely inefficient, with only 10-12% of material able to be recovered. This means that every ‘recycled’ polystyrene product is, in fact, around 90% brand new material.

Additionally, the term ‘recyclable’ implies that material is salvaged and kept out of the ecosystem. In reality, polystyrene flows into our environment at an alarming rate… Where it sits for 500 years! EPS foam currently occupies 30% of landfill space and an additional 4.6 billion pounds of polystyrene end up in landfills every year.

Even more disturbing, polystyrene foam is primarily made of styrene, an organic compound that is highly toxic and carcinogenic. Studies have shown the connection between styrene and cancer, increasing the risk of leukemia and lymphoma. Polystyrene foam itself is inert, but heating polystyrene foam products will release styrene. Doesn’t matter whether that’s in your microwave at home or by the sun beating down on a pile of waste.

The EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory reports that 28.5 million pounds of styrene were released into the environment in 2014 alone. And as we continue to use and dispose of EPS, it continues to slowly poison our world.


EPA delivered better alternatives to polystyrene foam Front Building DCEPA – William Jefferson Building – Washington, D.C.


Alternative packaging materials: Polyethylene (EPE)

These environmental and health side effects of polystyrene packaging inspired an EPA report, which delves into alternative materials. Most notably, they highlight recycled polyethylene foam (EPE), for its strength and reusability.

The EPA finds polyethylene foam to be more durable, more sustainable, and more cost-effective when successfully implemented. Using dynamic drop testing, the EPA determined recycled polyethylene showed “a greater ability to absorb the energy resulting from multiple drops than that of EPS.” Further, EPE foam significantly “reduces the need for virgin raw materials and thus reduces the resulting emissions,” as compared to the inefficient recycling process of EPS.

The EPA also clearly outlines the significance of a packaging closed loop ecosystem and its many environmental and financial benefits. “A returnable/reusable packaging system can offer cost benefits and improve customer relations,” in addition to its environmental advantages over polystyrene.


It’s time to make the switch

At EPE, we design with alternative packaging materials to polystyrene, including polyethylene. Through our proprietary solutions, we provide higher performing results and cost reduction benefits, at a lower environmental impact. EPE has improved cushioning capabilities and significant cost advantages, without using toxic styrene. By fully understanding all material properties, EPE is able to create reusable packaging ecosystems that provide better performance.

20 years ago, the EPA predicted the future, citing the issues with EPS and explaining what materials to use instead. Now, the wheels of change are turning and leaving behind polystyrene, to join asbestos and tin cans made with lead. It’s time to move into the future. Make the switch.

Talk to one of our packaging professionals today about how EPE can redesign your product packaging to replace polystyrene and provide for a solution that can withstand any modern transit environment.