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Styrofoam Recycling Gets a Big Boost


The largest facility in the country for recycling the plastic best known as Styrofoam, bane of environmentalists, will open for business in Southern California in October.

The National Polystyrene Recycling Co. announced Friday that it is already installing equipment in a Corona reprocessing plant. The company was formed last year by the eight major U.S. polystyrene resin producers, in reaction to attempts around the nation to ban foam and rigid polystyrene packaging.

The material is used in such items as foam plates and bowls, yogurt and margarine tubs and clamshell containers, both the fast-food foam variety and clear plastic takeout salad packs.

Environmentalists consider polystyrene to be a particularly wasteful use of resources and landfill space, as well as a common component of litter. Californians Against Waste, a Sacramento-based environmental lobbying group, estimates that 206 million pounds of polystyrene are used for consumer packaging in Southern California annually.

Polystyrene--one form of which is Dow Chemical Co.'s Styrofoam--is already banned for some uses in a few cities, including Berkeley, Portland, Ore., and Port Townsend, Wash. Other municipalities, including Olympia, Wash., and St. Paul/Minneapolis, are considering a ban.

"It's the beer can of the '90s," admits Jim Schneiders, president and chief executive of the recycling company. Schneiders compares polystyrene's bad image today to the negative, "throwaway" image of the aluminum beverage can before aluminum producers worked together to develop recycling systems.

"I think (the polystyrene producers) were concerned about the strategic position of their market, based upon the way a lot of people view polystyrene," Schneiders said.

The new Corona plant in Riverside County is designed to recycle 13 million pounds of used polystyrene annually. A smaller facility in Leominster, Mass., is already in operation and the recycling consortium plans to have regional facilities operating in San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia by the end of the year. Independent of these, Amoco Corp. operates a facility in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Denton Plastics Inc. has been recycling polystyrene in Portland, Ore., for the past 18 months.

"But what NPRC is bringing to the party that others have not," said Schneiders, "is the capability to wash used food-service materials."

Most polystyrene has been considered unrecyclable by environmentalists, in large part because of the technical difficulties of removing food waste. "And there is still some concern about (recycled polystyrene) being contaminated by food materials," said Jeanne Wirka, solid waste policy analyst with the Environmental Action Foundation in Washington.

Wirka also was skeptical Friday of the industry's goal of recycling 250 million pounds of polystyrene by 1995, which would be 25% of the polystyrene used annually in U.S. food service and packaging.

"It's an ambitious number," Wirka said. "If you said that of soda bottles, or milk bottles, you wouldn't get any eyebrows raised, because people who work in plastic recycling know that the markets exist. But with polystyrene recycling, there are so many kinks to be worked out."

"We're not sending a rocket to the moon," says Schneiders. "This is a technology that is known."

The simple economics, according to Schneiders, are that recycled polystyrene currently sells at only 80% of the price of virgin, or new material, making it a bargain. And if the product is rendered clean, the market for the recycled plastic will be far greater.

"We'll go right after the same kinds of products that are being made out of virgin polystyrene," said Schneiders.

But the biggest cost for recycling systems is usually collecting the used material, and some observers question whether institutions such as schools, or fast-food restaurants will be willing to pay this expense.

"That's a key question for the success of recycling, to identify the responsibility for that cost," said George Heath, senior consultant at Chem Systems Inc., a Tarrytown, N.Y., consulting firm to the chemical industry. "Generally in the industry, everyone is evaluating the relationships they have with haulers."

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration is reevaluating its rules restricting use of recycled plastics in packaging food. The rules implied that only virgin material could be used, Heath said.

Talco Recycling Co., Whittier, will operate the Corona facility. Information about collection points is available at (800) 696-6965.

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