It seems that expanded polystyrene foam has been the scourge of amateur environmentalists since the very first Earth Day. In my town in Massachusetts, a science teacher at the local middle school suggested that his class propose a ban on use of EPS packaging in the school cafeteria even though it was part of an interesting pilot project for recycling of waste foam packaging. The logic was unclear. It must be bad. McDonalds uses it. Adding insult to injury, it’s usually called “Styrofoam”, a Dow brand name for a building material.
Now comes an announcement on the PRNewswire from a French Canadian packaging company proclaiming: “The End of a Myth!”
“Cascades is proud to release the results of a life cycle analysis (LCA) conducted by CIRAIG that calculates the ecological footprint for various food packaging trays made from six types of plastic and molded pulp originating from its own plants. Putting an end to the myth, the results actually demonstrate that Cascades polystyrene foam is a good choice for the environment!”
It continues: “Polystyrene foam, made of over 90% air, has an irrefutable ecological advantage, despite the fact that it is rarely recycled. For the items studied, this material produced the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the entire product life cycle, from raw material extraction to end-of-life. In addition, using recycled materials in the fabrication of food packaging trays, as is the case with the RPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate) and molded pulp, results in tangible environmental benefits, as doing so reduces the impact resulting from raw material extraction.”
Luc Langevin, president and COO of Cascades Specialty Products Group, says, “This analysis provides a new perspective on food packaging. The environmental performance of our trays is much better than popular belief. Polystyrene foam can now be part of our environmental packaging solution.”
Packaging materials studied were foamed and oriented polystyrene (XPS and OPS), standard and recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET and RPET), polylactic acid polymer (PLA), polypropylene (PP) and molded pulp made of recycled newspapers and telephone books.
It’s hard to tell how rigorous the study was. Cascades noted: “In the spirit of transparency, the detailed results are available at www.cascades.com/lca”. However, I could not find detailed results there.
Weighting, of course, would be important. EPS would rank well if used as a feedstock in a waste-to-energy plant. PLA, it would seem to me, would rank higher if carbon sequestration was a serious issue. If nothing else, it would be interesting to see how PLA compares to EPS in terms of energy consumption up to the point of use.