Most Styrofoam will not be recycled. Here is how 3 startups solved this problem | CBC News

2021-11-11 07:27:56 By : Mr. Simon Jo

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Virginie Bussières jokingly referred to Styrofoam as "Public Enemy No. 6". This is because the polystyrene takeaway containers, electronic product packaging, coolers and other products we discard every year are more likely to pollute waterways or be buried in landfills than recycling. (No. 6 is a reference to plastic identification number or resin code). Once in the environment, they may take decades or even centuries to decompose.

But Bussières and her colleagues at Pyrowave in Montreal hope to transform Styrofoam — literally — into a resource that everyone wants to recycle.

They are not the only ones. Polystyvert in Montreal and GreenMantra in Brantford, Ontario have similar visions but different technical solutions.

The material commonly referred to as polystyrene foam is correctly called expanded polystyrene foam or EPS, and it comes in many colors (not to be confused with polystyrene foam, which is used to make blue insulation Extruded polystyrene foam or EPS trademark brand of the board.)

A recent report by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce found that in 2012, 80% of Canada's styrofoam waste, more than 6,500 tons, ended up being landfilled or entering waterways.

This is because most communities do not recycle it—according to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, only 35% of communities accept polystyrene in their recycling program.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that the situation in the U.S. was even worse. In 2012, the recovery rate of polystyrene containers and packaging was less than 4%.

The main problem is that it is not cost-effective to collect materials that are so heavy, lightweight, fragile, and contaminate other recyclables. And once collected, there are not many buyers. Many jurisdictions, including the City of Toronto, must effectively pay companies.

But cost is not the only problem with traditional "mechanical" recycling.

Bussières, Pyrowave's vice president of communications, marketing and government affairs, said that it is also difficult to deal with contamination such as food residues that are common on food containers.

Like most plastics, traditional Styrofoam recycling is not actually a cycle.

After processing, it is no longer expandable or foamy. Instead, it becomes hard plastic, which is used to make things like crown moldings, picture frames, and park benches. In other words, it can only be "recycled" once.

This is where the Pyrowave technology is different-it uses a "chemical recycling" process to dispose of waste polystyrene and produce brand new styrofoam.

Microwaves heat and decompose polystyrene molecules, which are long chains, forming their respective links-called styrene. In turn, it can be converted back into polystyrene by chemical treatment.

"In the process, all the pollution was taken away," Bussières added.

This means that the process can start with styrofoam that is dirtier than traditional recycling and produce new styrofoam with 100% recycled content, the same as styrofoam made directly from petroleum.

"We can reduce our dependence on oil," Bussières said. "This is the vision behind the technology."

She added that this is also the key to the so-called circular economy-based on resources being endlessly reused and recycled, instead of extracting new ones and then landfilling them at the end of life as in most cases now.

Pyrowave estimates that its recycling process can produce polystyrene, and its energy and greenhouse gas emissions are one-tenth of that of polystyrene made directly from petroleum, and said it can compete with the "raw" styrene produced from crude oil. Sell ​​its styrene at the price of

The product can also be recycled again and again, although it currently loses about 10% each time.

Bussières says that polystyrene is ideal for chemical recycling because every link is the same (in many polymers, there are different kinds of links): "Technology can turn the public enemy number six into the easiest One of the things recycled."

The company conducted a pilot test of its technology in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Quebec, near Montreal in November 2018. Its factory can process about 100 or 200 kilograms per hour. The resulting styrene oil was sold to INEOS Styrolution Canada, a chemical supplier in Sarnia, Ontario.

Bussières stated that the company is also discussing with Health Canada that the polystyrene manufactured through its process obtains food-grade approval.

Another Montreal company not far from Pyrowave said it can also make polystyrene from 100% recycled materials.

Polystyvert said its process also produced a material identical to the new polystyrene.

The difference is that Polystyvert does not decompose polystyrene, but dissolves it in essential oils.

"This is a change of state," the company's founder and CEO Solenne Brouard Gaillot likens it to a transition between snow and water.

The company provides solvent-containing concentrators to companies that can be placed on site. By dissolving Styrofoam before transportation, it means that 10 times more Styrofoam can be put in the same truck.

Once dissolved, it can be re-solidified with another solvent and washed and filtered multiple times to remove contaminants before reforming into polystyrene particles. Those can be changed back to polystyrene foam.

The solvent can be recycled and reused, as can the polystyrene foam itself.

"There is no end. That's the point," Brouard Gaillot said.

Because it does not need to be chemically decomposed into styrene and then processed into polystyrene, Brouard Gaillot said that the Polystyvert process is cheaper and consumes less energy than the Pyrowave process.

She added that the polystyrene particles it produces are cheaper than "raw" polystyrene made from petroleum, which is important because manufacturers are unwilling to pay high prices for "greener" products.

Polystyvert opened a demonstration plant in Montreal in June 2018, which can process 125 kilograms of polystyrene per hour, or 800 tons per year. It obtains polystyrene from companies such as municipalities and refrigerator distributors.

The polystyrene it produces is currently being sold to a company that makes insulating materials.

But it is also working to obtain food-grade approvals from Health Canada and the US FDA so that it can manufacture food containers.

But is it the best solution to convert the discarded styrofoam takeaway container back to the new styrofoam takeaway container?

Jodie Morgan, CEO of GreenMantra in Branfordford, Ontario, doesn't think so.

"We believe that, overall, plastic is a very low-value product," she said. "Then we spent a lot of money to collect that product, classify that product, and process that product so that it can return to... a relatively low-value final product."

She believes that in order to increase the recycling rate of plastics around the world, more efforts are needed to recycle. To this end, waste plastics need to be more valuable.

GreenMantra's technology turns discarded polystyrene foam into something completely different.

This is a form of chemical recovery, just like Polystyvert's technology. However, instead of dividing the styrofoam chains into individual links, it cuts them into smaller pieces.

This creates a completely different material from Styrofoam.

"By using this molecule, we can create products that are more valuable than virgin plastic," Morgan said.

These include ink and coating additives used in the printing industry to make them more glossy, easier to print and more durable. Domenic di Mondo, GreenMantra's vice president of technology, said they replace similar additives made directly from fossil fuels.

Another goal of the company is to make polystyrene foam easier to reuse. Now, this is tricky because so many different types of Styrofoam are collected and recycled together, and it is difficult to mix them into a single product.

GreenMantra's additives can help them mix well, so that they can become more products, such as insulating boards. Morgan likened it to an emulsifier in bottled salad dressing, which prevents oil and water from separating.

Di Mondo said that this additive can also reduce the density of the foam and improve its performance as an insulator.

The company has just built a demonstration plant in Brantford, Ontario. It is expected that the plant will be put into use within a month or two and can process thousands of tons of polystyrene each year.

Unlike Pyrowave and Polystyvert, which get raw materials for free, GreenMantra said it chose to pay for some discarded polystyrene it will obtain from companies and municipalities.

"Part of the reason is that we are doing this to promote more collections," Dimondo explained.

This is good news for cities that are struggling to find a home for discarded polystyrene foam.

Nadine Kerr, City of Toronto Processing and Resource Management Manager, said this is the city’s biggest foam recycling challenge right now.

Currently, Pyrowave, Polystyvert and GreenMantra are performing measurement and adjustment techniques on a relatively small scale. On the one hand, Polystyvert stated that the amount of free styrofoam waste it provides exceeds its processing capacity.

Kerr said the city of Toronto has conducted trials with two of the three companies to test the new technology.

"So there is some hope for this material," she said.

Andrea Hicks, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently published a study examining the impact of polystyrene on the environment throughout its life cycle.

It found that the raw materials used to extract polystyrene are "environmental taxes" because they need to be distilled from crude oil.

From this perspective, Hicks thinks it is interesting that new polystyrene foam recycling technologies are replacing these raw materials.

But she pointed out that styrofoam needs to be re-expanded and molded, and that only molding and molding consumes 30% of the energy in the styrofoam life cycle.

She added that it is not that any new recycling technology is better for the environment.

This depends on the amount and type of energy used to power the process, as well as other materials used in the process, such as solvents. "And the resulting environmental impact."

Hicks' research found that recycling reduces the environmental footprint of polystyrene foam, but reuse has a greater effect.

"This is the whole reduction, reuse, and recycling," she said. "And I think what people really miss is that it is actually a hierarchical structure. We should reduce what we use, and then reuse. The last case is recycling."

Emily Chung covers science and environment for CBC News. She previously worked as a digital reporter at CBC Ottawa and as an interim producer at CBC's Quirks & Quarks. She has a doctorate in chemistry.

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