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.