With a recycling rate of 38% in 2016 for expanded polystyrene (EPS), why are companies eliminating the affordable, reliable protective packaging material from their options?
The type of plastic you use for your packaging matters more and more, for various reasons—including consumer preference and environmental stewardship. Over the decades, companies have shied away from certain plastic packaging seen as unpopular or even harmful. Recently, as part of their sustainable materials management programs, Target and McDonald’s say they will be replacing expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging with something else.
Eliminating EPS from Target-owned product packaging by 2022 is one of five new sustainable packaging goals for the retailer. Kim Carswell, a packaging director at Target, explains why:
1. “We noticed the guest frustration when they tried to recycle it, because it’s not easily recyclable.”
2. “It’s also a big issue in our distribution centers because a lot of product that gets sent to stores is taken out of the box and hung, like a mirror or a frame. But then the polystyrene has got to go back to the distribution centers and there’s a lot more than you would imagine. It’s just enough to be a problem but not enough to invest in densifiers.”
But Carswell also says, “We know this material has got a lot of value. Today, polystyrene has a great cost, it’s very available and does a great job protecting the product. We want to be super careful in moving away from it.”
PlasticsToday reports that McDonald’s will phase out “harmful [EPS] foam packaging globally” after 31% of shareholders voted at its annual meeting on May 24, 2017, in favor of the action [see update below]. According to press reports, the nearly one-third vote “far exceeds the average voting result of 20% for social and environmental issue proposals.”
The vote was in response to urging from As You Sow, the environmental and social corporate responsibility advocacy group. In February 2017, it publicly asked four leading U.S. companies—Amazon, McDonald’s, Target and Walmart—to make plans to phase out polystyrene foam packaging. As You Sow cited the January 2017 report The New Plastics Economy—Catalyzing Action from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which recommends replacement of polystyrene (PS), expanded polystyrene (EPS), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) as packaging materials.
Yet in July 2017, the Chicago Tribune reported that McDonald’s was bringing back foam cups in the area without giving a clear reason why. Conrad MacKerron, svp of As You Sow, was quoted in the article, saying, “It seems strange to bring something like this back. It’s kind of curious that they’re doing this now.”
[UPDATE 8-18-17: On Wed., Aug. 16, Conrad MacKerron from As You Sow sent an email saying that McDonald's had not agreed to phase out EPS. Upon further checking with McDonald's, asking specifically if the company had or had not agreed to this, a public relations representative declined to answer the question but instead sent this statement: "We continue to work with our suppliers on sustainable packaging options that reduce our sourcing footprint and positively impact the communities we serve."]
EPS recycling stats and industry response
According to the EPS Industry Alliance, which represents expanded polystyrene manufacturers, EPS recycling has averaged about 18% over a 25-year period. Betsy Bowers, executive director of EPS-IA, says, “Despite minor fluctuation in quantities collected from year to year for post‐consumer versus post-industrial, overall EPS recycling has, and continues, to demonstrate consistent, long term growth.”
In 2016, the EPS recycling rate spiked to 38% and packaging is the majority of the material being recycled. A total of 118.7 million pounds of material were recycled, with 63 million pounds coming from post-consumer and post-commercial streams, and the rest, 55.7 million pounds, from post-industrial operations.
Source: EPS Industry Alliance
Despite the high recycling percentage cited by the industry group, companies are still shying away from EPS, decisions that EPS-IA says might not be based solely on science.
“Polystyrene bans are perceived as an environmental quick‐fix that, in reality, don’t deliver any benefits to minimize waste, increase recycling or diminish environmental impacts,” Bowers explains. “In California, 65 communities have banned polystyrene, while 57 have implemented polystyrene curbside recycling. While Target and McDonalds have succumbed to shareholder activism advocating polystyrene phase outs, WalMart, Williams Sonoma, NutriSystems and others have embraced widespread EPS recycling initiatives. Subaru implemented an international EPS reuse program, achieving ≥20 (re)uses per unit while saving $1 million in packaging costs. Which of these are environmentally progressive?”
She continues, “This begs the question, will recycling meet all our environmental goals? If recyclability is the sole benchmark of environmental worthiness, then all products that can’t be recycled would be banned. EPS‐IA challenges As You Sow, Target and others that may be entertaining EPS bans to seek better environmental solutions. Check the facts and rely on credible sources. Don’t cherry pick information to suit a pre‐determined outcome. Find out about alternative materials real‐world availability, and conduct due diligence on performance and environmental tradeoffs.”
(See page 2 for the text of Bowers full statement.)
Other plastic packaging phase outs
In an online poll conducted in Spring 2017, Packaging Digest and its sister publications PlasticsToday and Pharmaceutical & Medical Packaging News asked our global packaging communities if they were, indeed, phasing out certain plastics and, if so, was The New Plastics Economy initiative playing a role in their decision.
Download the free 8-page exclusive report below to see the results, shown by all respondents, by market (food; beverage; medical devices/supplies; electronics; household products; Rx or OTC pharmaceutical; personal care/cosmetics; media; and other) and by plastic type (expanded polystyrene/EPS; polyvinyl chlorine/PVC; polystyrene/PS; or other).