Waste Management announced yesterday that it will be investing close to $7 million in a small Seattle company named MicroGREEN Polymers, Inc.. MicroGREEN produces an expanded plastic product called Ad-Air that can be used in many of the same applications in which polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, is used today. The advantage of Ad-Air is that it can be made from recycled plastics such as PET and as a result, can itself be recycled at the end of the product’s useful life.
Polystyrene is made from petroleum, is highly flammable and uses carcinogenic benzene in its production. It is labeled as #6 for recycling, although many recycling operations do not handle it. According to Green Living Tips, approximately 10-12% of it is recycled annually (#1 and #2 have much higher rates). Burning polystyrene produces styrene gas, which a neurotoxin. It is also not biodegradable and large quantities of it can be found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The new material is made by saturating an existing plastic like PET with carbon dioxide gas and then heating in. This seals in the gas bubbles producing the desired effect: an expanded lightweight material that can be formed into a variety shapes. The process is entirely mechanical (video) which means that if the resin being used is recyclable, then the end product will be recyclable as well.
According to a joint press release, MicroGREEN will begin offering a line of Ad-air enhanced rPET sheets in various gauges for converters to transform into consumer products and packaging later this year. MicroGREEN also plans to launch its first converted product – a low-density, thermally-insulating beverage cup that is recyclable and is itself made from recycled material. According to Global Industry Analysts, this food service application will represent an over $16 billion market in the United States by 2015.
Perhaps this will put to bed, once and for all, that classic question always posed in Sustainability 101 classes: which is more sustainable, disposable or reusable cups? The analysis is usually given as a teaching story to show that there is more to sustainability than meets the eye. It challenges those that give the intuitive answer of reusable cups, to consider the energy and pollution that is generated each time the cup is washed.
In a recent lifecycle inventory and analysis study of hot beverage cups conducted by Franklin Associates, Ad-air technology (referred to as RPET SMX in the study) when used in a recycled PET hot beverage cup has the lowest total amount of energy required to produce a hot beverage cup and the lowest total solid waste as measured in both volume and weight when compared to expanded polystyrene (EPS) and coated paperboard hot beverage cups, the two most commonly used in the market today.
This investment will also help Waste Management meet two of its sustainability goals: tripling the amount of recyclables it processes by 2020, and investing in emerging technologies for managing waste.
RP Siegel is co-author of the novel Vapor Trails a story about an oil spill and the system that caused it.