Expanded polystyrene, or styrofoam, is light. Super light. That’s because most of it is air, with just two per cent solids.
While this makes styrofoam an ideal material for packaging, it brings massive challenges when it comes to recycling because of the sheer amount of space it consumes.
In 2017/18, more than 33,000 tonnes of single-use, polystyrene packaging materials were made for Australia, but less than 6,000 tonnes were recycled.
The rest could well have spilt into our waterways, clogged up our landfill and contaminated our other recycling efforts.
And it takes hundreds of years to degrade.
It also creates a huge cost burden for businesses who have to pay to transport or store the unwanted material.
While styrofoam beads may be small, this is no small problem.
Indeed, four of the nine priority materials identified by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation in its 2020 Action Plan for Problematic and Unnecessary Single-Use Plastic Packaging’ are forms of polystyrene.
While polystyrene recycling programs do exist, they usually require waste materials to be driven to a central deposit location and often result in low-value material output. Given the large physical volumes involved, this is impractical for many businesses.
Science will solve it
But there is light on the horizon.
CSIRO is joining forces with researchers at RMIT and industry partners on a $6.7 million project to solve this massive problem. This includes a $3 million contribution from the Federal Government’s Cooperative Research Centres Projects (CRC-P) Grants program.
Together, the team will work on a unique system to transform this problematic waste into reusable and valuable material.
Key to this research collaboration is Sebstainable, a company seeking to drive green projects that change how Australian businesses manage waste.
Sebstainable Directors Vladimir Finn and Tawab Frahmand said the project is all about developing waste technology solutions that Australian businesses will want to employ.
“We need a device that transforms polystyrene and expanded polystyrene into usable material, generates zero waste, is scalable, and works in the real world. It’s a big ask but we know that CSIRO and RMIT researchers have the big ideas to match,” Mr Finn said.
“This could be breakthrough that helps us to address one our most significant plastic waste challenges the world faces today.
“We approached CSIRO and RMIT to work on this project because both research providers have proven expertise in polymer science, advanced manufacturing and prototyping.”
Our mission to end plastic waste
CSIRO has also established a major program to tackle plastic waste through science and technology.
The Ending Plastic Waste Mission is supporting government and industry initiatives to divert plastic waste into a resource to build Australia’s circular economy. The mission goal is an 80 per cent reduction in plastic waste entering the Australian environment by 2030.
Team Leader Dr Adrian Trinchi said CSIRO researchers had turned their minds to developing a styrofoam solution.
“This project is a great opportunity to join forces with Dr Ylias Sabri and his researchers at RMIT to turn our united vision into a commercial reality,” Dr Trinchi said.
“The aim is to develop an upcycling process that generates high-value raw materials ready for use in a range of industrial projects.”
The outcome will be a reactor that uses a high-temperature process called pyrolysis to break down polystyrene into different products. In addition to dealing with the waste problem, the output of this process will be useful industrial materials: styrene, a compound which is ten times more valuable than the original form; ash and gas.
Dr Trinchi explained that the resulting ash and gas are valuable as inputs into industrial processes. He said the ash would be turned into activated carbon.
“Activated carbon is a versatile material with a vast range of uses. Another partner in the project, ByGen, has first-class capability in harnessing activated carbon, so they will be guiding this aspect of the project.
“The gas that is generated along way will go back into fuelling the pyrolysis, making it a truly circular process with zero waste.”
A reactor on the back of a ute
Dr Trinchi noted that a critical feature of the reactor will be its portability, which addresses one of the key constraints facing businesses.
“The concept is that we will be able to fit the recycling machine on the back of a ute, so it can be moved to where the waste is”, Dr Trinchi said.
"This portability means it will be flexible enough to be deployed in a wide range of situations.”
Dr Trinchi said the goal was to develop a commercial product that could be used by businesses across the country.
“At the end of this project, we will have a proven technology ready to go into scaled manufacture. This wouldn’t be possible without our expert team.” he said.