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Shaping the EPS Industry: A Conversation with Alliance (EPS-IA) on Market Trends and Environmental Initiatives


1. Tell us a little bit about the EPS Industry Alliance.
The Expanded Polystyrene Industry Alliance (EPS-IA) is a trade association representing North American manufacturers of expanded polystyrene (EPS) that produce transport packaging and building and construction solutions. We advocate for the responsible use of EPS, as well as research-backed solutions and policies that will positively benefit the environment and the economy.

2. You recently applauded the Biden-Harris Administration’s $100 million investment in recycling infrastructure to promote a circular economy. Why do you think this is an important step?
The Biden Administration’s $100 million allocation could allow more communities to implement EPS recycling into their municipal collection efforts. Existing programs demonstrate the ability to efficiently collect the material, identify end markets, and realize increased revenues by freeing up valuable landfill space for heavier refuse. Curbside recycling is not suitable for all residential waste, and this investment to expand recycling infrastructure could be a pivotal step for communities to identify ways to recycle these materials.

3. We’ve heard you say that EPS is often misunderstood. How so?
EPS is sometimes misunderstood due to confusion with other foam plastics. For example, foam meat trays are made from extruded polystyrene (XPS). It has different properties that make it the best choice for this application – primarily due to its superior adhesion to plastic wrap. Other types of polystyrene include GPPS, HIPS, OPS, and co-polymers, that are used to make tens of thousands of different applications. Materials with food contamination can be more challenging to recycle, for plastic and paper both.
Because of this many people assume EPS transport packaging is not recyclable, when in fact it is being recycled in practice and at scale in many countries, in accordance with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) guidelines. Another point of confusion stems from recyclability in commercial versus residential waste sources. It is a misnomer that only residential waste recycling counts. However, whether commercial or residential waste, it is disposed of in the same landfill if not recycled.

4. What do you most want people to know about EPS?
The importance of EPS is becoming clearer as some companies try to replace it with substitute materials that do not work. It is an essential packaging material for appliances, large format electronics, fresh fish, fragile light fixtures, and especially for cold chain shipping where low temperatures are required over long distances. These are just some examples of its utility in the distribution supply chain, and the lynchpin of its function is damage avoidance. Increased damage erodes profit margins, comprises brand loyalty and most importantly, exponentially increases environmental impacts.
Using conservative assumptions to calculate the cost associated with in-transit damage and subsequent return rates, $4.21 per unit is a starting point to begin envisioning the economic impacts that could result from just 1% in increased damage. The environmental impacts are ten-fold considering transportation is quadrupled, and remanufacturing of a replacement product and new packaging are needed.

5.The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) will meet at the UN Environment Programme headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, from November 13 – 19 to detail the historic, and soon-to-be, legally binding international “instrument” on plastic pollution. What are your thoughts leading up to this?
Recently, expanded polystyrene foam has been a point of discussion within international policy circles. The week of November 13th, we will be attending the third meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme International Negotiating Committee (INC-3) that is being held in Nairobi, Kenya, to establish a legally binding treaty on plastic pollution. Participating as an accredited observer gives the EPS industry a chance to understand environmental solutions for EPS on a broader scale. While the UNEP Zero Draft of the instrument alludes to restrictions for problematic and avoidable plastics, the criteria to evaluate a material’s environmental impacts has not benefited from any in-depth discussion.
INC-3 marks the beginning of the actual negotiations which could shed some light on this policy option, and it will likely be assigned as an intercessional activity. For now, recyclability is the only perceptible benchmark leading to many premature conclusions. It will be interesting to see what is accomplished at the third meeting, as up until now, inputs have largely been on a theoretical level. Moving forward there will need to be balance between ambition and reality, which we hope to see evolve at INC-3.
To achieve this balance, EPS-IA believes the treaty scope should aim to address plastic pollution, and not duplicate efforts when it is possible to defer to other multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) such as the Basel and Stockholm Conventions, except when potential solutions fall outside the scope of existing MEAs. This would allow more time to focus on implementation and financing challenges within the short time frame in which the treaty is scheduled for completion. There is a dire need to create mechanisms for the scientific community to contribute. The lack of reliance on science this far into the process creates the potential for misinformation and misperceptions to take its place.

6.What would you like to see as part of that global agreement?
EPS-IA has recommended the treaty adopt a life cycle assessment approach to material comparisons. There is a large body of evidence showing plastic cannot be summarily replaced by alternative materials without taking the full product life cycle into account. This could be achieved by establishing policy that requires Environmental Product Declarations, which are based on regional Product Category Rules under ISO 14025, Environmental Labels and Declarations, Type III Environmental Declarations – Principles and Procedures. This would create the basis for data rich material comparisons that rely on full life cycle inventory analysis that is third-party certified.

7.Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like people to know?
Many member states have made encouraging remarks about the value of the plastics industry’s important role of informing negotiators about innovations, to ensure the treaty meets its goal to end plastic pollution. EPS-IA is honored to participate in this daunting challenge, and we are encouraged with the opportunity to contribute innovative policy solutions and concepts.

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