A talk with the new EUMEPS Managing Director: the future of EPS in Europe

Jür­gen Lang has been the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of EUMEPS since mid-2021. The EUMEPS Smart Pack­ag­ing Europe ini­tia­tive pro­vides help­ful facts and use­ful insight on pack­ag­ing with EPS (expand­ed poly­styrene) on its web­site and on social media.

What is the ratio­nale behind putting this effort into dis­sem­i­nat­ing infor­ma­tion on a time-test­ed mate­r­i­al like EPS? 

EPS is an eco­log­i­cal­ly ben­e­fi­cial, and ver­sa­tile pack­ag­ing mate­r­i­al. How­ev­er, we have a strange sit­u­a­tion where this real­i­ty is not ful­ly reflect­ed in its pub­lic image, and that it is some­times even the sub­ject of dis­crim­i­na­tion vis-à-vis oth­er plas­tics or mate­ri­als due to lack of pub­lic aware­ness of its ben­e­fits. Since this bias is by no means jus­ti­fied, the EPS indus­try found­ed Smart Pack­ag­ing Europe under the roof of the Euro­pean umbrel­la asso­ci­a­tion of the EPS indus­try, EUMEPS.

Espe­cial­ly in the case of EPS, the indus­try has had to cope with prej­u­dices, and a lack of tech­ni­cal knowl­edge and impact assess­ments on the part of some Euro­pean pol­i­cy­mak­ers. This prob­lem can only be solved by putting the sci­en­tif­ic, tech­ni­cal and eco­nom­ic facts on the table and dis­cussing them open­ly. Smart Pack­ag­ing Europe has only been live for a year now, but it has already gath­ered almost 20 sup­port­ers and spon­sors of all sizes from across Europe to do exact­ly that.

Why is the image of EPS that strong­ly damaged? 

One rea­son is vis­i­bil­i­ty. EPS should nev­er end up in the envi­ron­ment. But unfor­tu­nate­ly, it some­times does when it is han­dled in an irre­spon­si­ble way. And because EPS con­sists of 98% air, it is light and floats in rivers and in the ocean, while oth­er mate­ri­als sink. It’s also often white, which makes it easy to spot. Beach­es are one place where the EU has been look­ing to deter­mine which mate­r­i­al is lit­tered the most. How­ev­er, where more com­pre­hen­sive stud­ies have been con­duct­ed, such as in Switzer­land, EPS is in fact lit­tered the least among all major plas­tics. EPS is there­fore unjuste­ly asso­ci­at­ed with lit­ter­ing because of its vis­i­bil­i­ty. More­over, with EPS being a lead­ing and well-known foamed plas­tic, media and pol­i­cy­mak­ers often con­fuse it with oth­er foamed materials.

To be more spe­cif­ic, have a look at how the EU Sin­gle-use Plas­tics Direc­tive (SUPD) turned out. It explic­it­ly address­es “expand­ed poly­styrene” sin­gle-use food con­tain­ers and bev­er­age cups. How­ev­er, in real­i­ty, you could hard­ly find such prod­ucts on the Euro­pean mar­ket even before the SUPD. Law­mak­ers most like­ly had so-called clamshells for fast food in mind. How­ev­er, they are not actu­al­ly made of EPS but rather of oth­er foamed plas­tics, so we have a clear case of mis­tak­en iden­ti­ty. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the EU has nonethe­less hurt the image of EPS. Smart Pack­ag­ing Europe explains in detail what hap­pened dur­ing the devel­op­ment and nego­ti­a­tions of the SUPD and shows some of the con­se­quences of that, which dis­tract the EPS indus­try and oth­ers from pro­vid­ing actu­al solu­tions to pro­tect the environment.

We stand by our mate­r­i­al and are fight­ing against such dis­in­for­ma­tion to main­tain the cer­tain­ty the indus­try needs for its invest­ments into the con­tin­u­ous improve­ment of EPS and its increased col­lec­tion and recy­cling. After all, EPS is high­ly resource effi­cient and 100% recy­clable as a pack­ag­ing mono mate­r­i­al. Recy­cling rates in mul­ti­ple Euro­pean coun­tries have reached 40–50% for many years already. As the EPS indus­try shares even high­er ambi­tions with the EU, EUMEPS vol­un­tar­i­ly pledged in 2018 to meet and exceed the EU 2025 recy­cling targets.

Togeth­er with many allies from across mul­ti­ple indus­tries, we have called on the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion to ded­i­cate enough time and resources to the revi­sion of the Pack­ag­ing and Pack­ag­ing Waste Direc­tive (PPWD), so that in this case a law emerges that pro­tects the envi­ron­ment effec­tive­ly, tak­ing into account the full life cycle of prod­ucts. We are work­ing with all EU and nation­al insti­tu­tions, as well as with part­ners in the val­ue chain, to make the cir­cu­lar econ­o­my for EPS a real­i­ty in line with the EU ambitions.

What are the main hur­dles you want to over­come right now? 

What we want to get across to law­mak­ers and oth­er stake­hold­ers is that ini­tia­tives such as the SUPD and the PPWD, but also the Cli­mate Act in France, can be valu­able instru­ments for envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion. How­ev­er, they can only do that if politi­cians stop look­ing for bans that only seem like easy fix­es but actu­al­ly fail to fair­ly reflect the real mar­ket sit­u­a­tion and facts about the life cycle ben­e­fits of mate­ri­als such as EPS.

Vir­gin EPS is pro­duced by a few large chem­i­cal com­pa­nies in Europe, and users of EPS pack­ag­ing include well-known brand own­ers and retail­ers, which need EPS pack­ag­ing to safe­ly trans­port valu­able goods such as elec­tron­ic and elec­tri­cal equip­ment to con­sumers. How­ev­er, the mate­r­i­al con­vert­ers, users and recy­clers are most­ly small and medi­um enter­pris­es (SMEs), many of which are fam­i­ly-owned. Over­all, the EPS indus­try employs over 80,000 peo­ple across Europe. So, it is impor­tant for pol­i­cy­mak­ers to under­stand the impact that their deci­sions have, includ­ing for the econ­o­my and jobs at local level.

What does the EPS indus­try con­tribute to the solution? 

After con­tribut­ing much to pro­tect­ing the envi­ron­ment and cli­mate dur­ing its use, EPS becomes a valu­able waste stream. It has already been recy­cled suc­cess­ful­ly at scale for many years. This is due to the EPS pack­ag­ing remain­ing pure and unspoiled by unex­pect­ed con­t­a­m­i­na­tions in most of its appli­ca­tions. Thus, the key to the recy­cling of these clean and light parts is sep­a­rate col­lec­tion and sort­ing. Sup­port­ive reg­u­la­tions and a val­ue chain that forms clever logis­tics can fur­ther extend the high qual­i­ty and val­ue of this stream. The EPS val­ue chain has already devel­oped effec­tive solu­tions for dif­fer­ent mar­kets. For exam­ple, EPS fish box­es are increas­ing­ly col­lect­ed for recy­cling in har­bours and at fish mar­kets. Phar­ma and med­ical trans­port box­es, as well as the pro­tec­tive pack­ag­ing of elec­tri­cal and elec­tron­ic equip­ment, should ide­al­ly be returned to retail­ers. Alter­na­tive­ly, they can and should be sep­a­rate­ly col­lect­ed at local col­lec­tion points or at the kerbside.

And for those spe­cif­ic, remain­ing cas­es where mechan­i­cal recy­cling makes no envi­ron­men­tal or eco­nom­ic sense, such as con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed or hard­ly sep­a­ra­ble waste residues, our indus­try has been devel­op­ing and is com­mer­cial­is­ing inno­v­a­tive recy­cling solu­tions such as dis­so­lu­tion and chem­i­cal recycling.

Jür­gen Lang has been the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of EUMEPS since mid-2021.
AuthorLea Salihovic