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Used polystyrene foam can be used for ecological purposes

Used polystyrene foam can be used for ecological purposes

Styrofoam is currently the most-popular thermal-insulation material. It is estimated that this product is used by 60% of the Polish construction industry, and the durability of the insulation made from it is estimated to be at least fifty years. Is this material environmentally friendly at the end of its life cycle, and can it be considered as environmentally neutral waste?

Thermal insulation using polystyrene-panel heating means energy savings and a reduction in the consumption of energy sources. In addition, the process of manufacturing the raw material, i.e. polystyrene for foaming, consumes little energy. All this results in lower emissions of carbon dioxide and of harmful compounds into the atmosphere. Today, however, it is extremely important that manufactured materials are to a large extent environmentally friendly after their use, in order to achieve more in the pursuit of reducing emissions and the use of natural resources. As the largest producer of EPS in Europe, we are not only constantly improving the properties of our Synthos EPS products which are currently on the market, but we are also striving to recycle them as efficiently as possible in the future.

The problem of the environmental performance of used products was recognised quite recently. In fact, until recently, manufactured products were used and then thrown away. This product-life-cycle model is called a linear system. This way, sometimes deliberately sometimes unintentionally, our population has continued to generate huge amounts of refuse, wasting extracted resources, and degrading the environment. Over time, the institutions set up to collect and store waste have had to face the challenge of reducing storage space by efficiently sorting and transferring secondary raw materials for recycling. Unfortunately, there was often in place no appropriate legislation, technical infrastructure, or funding, to ensure the smooth implementation of changes and improvements. Waste was becoming an increasingly uncomfortable issue, sometimes even an embarrassing problem, for the institutions responsible for waste management. Not only national Governments, but also decision-makers in international communities, including the European Union and the United Nations, have decided to address the issue, resulting from the general indifference, the lack of prospects for finding an effective solution to the rapidly growing problem, and the increasing awareness of the dangers we have created for ourselves. The environmental threats posed by the linear-economy model came to be recognised, which led to the developing of the concept of the Circular Economy (CE). This model has been developed based on the principle of reusing materials which have already been used up. The developed strategy's aim is to regulate a sustainable production policy directed at generating methods of manufacturing products’ using less materials and ensuring their reusing and recycling.

Styrofoam, or actually the polystyrene it is made from, affords many possibilities in this aspect. It is a very-recyclable and reuse-friendly material.  It does not contain substances which could hinder this process. In addition, Styrofoam is not combined with other materials or plastics which make it difficult or unsuitable for recycling. Consequently, it is a material suitable for multiple recycling, through which we can recover recyclable raw material with unchanged properties and high quality.

Currently, our plant in Oświęcim uses raw materials recovered from the market and processed by mechanical recycling to manufacture EPS. We work with manufacturers of ready-to-use EPS products, with sorting plants, and with waste-management companies, to obtain clean raw material for processing at the very source. Recovered polystyrene raw materials intended for reuse in our plant are selected, cleaned, ground, compacted, and then granulated, to obtain high-purity EPS recyclate. In our plant in Oświęcim, we have a dedicated EPS production line adapted to use recycled materials. We have equipment for the mechanical processing of EPS material into granules, which we later use to produce new raw material. We are also capable of efficiently processing our own by-products for the purpose of reusing them in the production process. Today, these solutions provide us with great opportunities to reduce the use of natural resources. The key factors are responsible waste segregation, favourable legislation, and the willingness of all participants to strictly cooperate in the chain of the manufacturing, using, collecting of waste, and recycling of polystyrene.

However, we strive to recycle polystyrene as efficiently as possible, in an effort to achieve something extra in the fight for the clean environment and zero CO2 emissions. We feel responsible for the environment we all use, and for the future of EPS products on the market, which is why for many years we have been continuously working on new methods of EPS recycling at the laboratories of our R&D Department. We are involved in international projects aimed at developing even-more-efficient and environmentally neutral technologies for EPS recovery. The most important are the PolystyreneLoop and Polystyvert projects, based on the most-advanced technologies for the chemical treatment of polystyrene waste recovered from packaging and the thermal insulation of buildings. In the Netherlands, we are helping to build the first facility in Europe using the EPS solvent-based recycling method, which has been recognised by the European Commission as the standard for polystyrene recovery. The most-important feature of the new technologies will not only be the full recovery of pure styrene raw material with unchanged original properties, but also the recovery of flame retardants, which will later be managed in a controlled manner.

These modern technologies are designed to ensure processes based on the principles of high efficiency, low energy consumption, emission-free, and environmentally neutral. The full technological process has several stages. In the first stage, pre-prepared raw material of polystyrene waste is broken down in a solvent. The dissolution process is very fast, and has minimal energy requirements, while the solvent itself is safe for the environment. In the next stage, a mixture of dissolved polystyrene and solvent is purified to achieve a high level of purity, and then transferred to the segregation process, which separates the already-pure polystyrene from the solvent, using technologically advanced filtration systems. The separation process takes place with almost 100% efficiency, and ensures high purity and unchanged properties in the recovered polystyrene (because there are no polymer-degradation processes). In the next stage, the obtained polymer is extruded and granulated by presses, to achieve a form in which it can be used to manufacture new products. 100% of the recovered solvent is returned to the process.

The success of the evolving technologies has contributed to the decision to set up further similar polystyrene-recycling plants across Europe in the future. It is important that the generated waste is treated at the place of its origin, or as close to it as possible, in order to further reduce emissions during transportation. Another challenge we face is to ensure a stable supply of EPS waste, with the cooperation and involvement of an increasing number of business partners, local authorities, and Government stakeholders.


Marcin Cebulski

Synthos EPS Product Manager at Synthos S.A.

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