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Waste Management Moves to Knock Styrofoam Off the Shelves

RP Siegel | Friday May 21st, 2010 | 5 Comments

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.

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RP Siegel is co-author of the novel Vapor Trails a story about an oil spill and the system that caused it.


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  • tkovach

    Thank you for posting this article, RP. This reflects one of the things I like the most about the move towards a greener, more sustainable economy – its inherently positive effects for small business. Providing money and resources for entrepreneurs and individuals with good ideas like this is a win-win proposition for the country; it enables new business creation, promotes job generation and growth, produces wealth and economic benefit, and helps put us on a more sustainable path.

    From the perspective of someone who works in energy and sustainability for a small business organization like COSE, many people in the small business world can look at sustainability and get discouraged, feeling that it is a privilege that only the big guys can take advantage of. But when the public sector and private businesses like Waste Management can work together with start ups and other small businesses to enable these types of new ideas to reach the market and gain a foothold, the benefits are shared by everyone who has a seat at the table.

    The entrepreneur has a chance to succeed and generate revenue. The local community, in this instance Seattle, reaps the benefit of job creation and producing new revenue streams that will likely remain local. The government benefits from a larger tax base due to business growth and expansion. And the country as a whole benefits from a new opportunity to reduce its collective environmental footprint. For those keeping score, I would argue this type of big-small partnership can result in a win-win-win-win. I like that equation.

    - Tim Kovach
    Product Coordinator, Energy at COSE
    http://www.cose.org/blog
    http://www.twitter.com/COSEenergy

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  • julie

    The argument of water washing is pretty weak as water is used to generate the disposable cups. We need to get used to carry our own container. You can use it through the day and wash it at the end having avoided a few disposable cups throughout. I personally prefer not to lick plastic either, whatever the kind.

  • Helen Mays

    I've been looking for solutions to recycling EPS and PS for some time. To remove it altogether is a good solution. I wonder, will plastics become so valuable the Great pacific Garbage Patch gets recycled? I really want to see plastic become more valued so more gets recycled. there's enough in existence already to keep us all afloat.. no need to produce more. I also think oil suddenly has a bad name, thanks to the BP leak. Something good may come out of the spill. A whole new industry has to spring up to clean up the oil, so those coastal towns get workers in their thousands who need feeding, accommodation and entertainment. For some townships it may bring new life, even if the town smells like death!

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    Very interesting!

  • Business mgmt classes LA

    Very interesting!