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Polystyrene Sustainability: One-on-One with Ineos Styrolution

Justin Riney, sustainability commercial manager, Americas, discloses advances, recycling, and legislative challenges for styrenics including polystyrene.

Rick Lingle, Senior Technical Editor

July 3, 2024

8 Min Read
Rick Lingle via Canva/Ineos Styrolution

At a Glance

  • Ineos Styrolution aims to enhance polystyrene sustainability in the US.
  • Styrenics company is on a mission to change the misconception that PS is not recyclable.
  • Customers are actively developing sustainable circularity-enabled products.

The higher the recycling code number, the less likely that polymer is recycled. Thus, companies involved in markets for numbers like SPI code #6 and #7 face a heady challenge on the sustainability front. And that’s not getting any easier during a period of anti-plastics bias exemplified in “Plastic Free July”.

One of those fighting the odds is Ineos Styrolution, which has a global footprint in styrenics, a family of plastics that includes styrene monomer and #6-coded polystyrene, among others. PS and expanded PS (EPS) are used in packaging, building and construction, and other markets.

Whether for molded or foamed packaging and products, Ineos is committed to making PS as sustainable as lower-number plastics through renewable resources, mechanical and advanced recycling, and other circular-centric innovations.

Justin Riney, sustainability commercial manager, Americas, discloses developments, recycling, and legislative challenges in polystyrene in this exclusive Q&A.

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Please summarize the company’s sustainability progress over the past year.

Riney: Ineos Styrolution has made significant strides in sustainability. We’re on a journey to save 1 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) and sell 500,000 metric tons of our line of Eco Products by 2030. Eco Products are post-consumer-recycle (PCR) content blends with our standard virgin products, bio-based materials produced using renewable feedstocks, or bio-circular materials produced with agricultural waste or used cooking oil. These include advanced styrenics, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), and polystyrene resins.

Globally, we announced several exciting new partnerships with our customers to support their sustainability commitments using our Eco Products in 2023. We still have a long road ahead of us, but we are proud of the progress we have made and will continue to make in 2024.

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How would you compare the company’s footprint and successes in US vs. Europe?

Riney: Europe is much further along in their sustainability journey than what we see in the US for all polymers, primarily when it comes to recycling infrastructure.

Our greatest issue in the US for styrenics such as polystyrene is the lack of access for consumers to recycle our products in their curbside bins. This lack of access has generally been driven by a misunderstanding in the US that PS is not recyclable. This is not true — PS is inherently recyclable due to its thermoplastic nature and excellent sortability characteristics.

Based on the misconception that our products are not recyclable, material recovery facilities (MRF) have not prioritized the investments needed to sort and collect PS as it enters the recycling stream. I want to be clear that this is not an indictment on the MRFs. We are working to change that through a concerted, strategic industry effort focused on increasing PS recycling access in the US, with the goal to increase our products’ recycling rates.

Soon, we hope to maintain a portfolio of products with PCR content in the same way that our European colleagues enjoy. We are working with customers to develop products specifically tailored to their applications by identifying and sourcing available PCR PS materials to blend with our traditional virgin products to deliver “drop-in” solutions for traditional fossil-based materials. We are thrilled with the progress we have made to date, but also understand we have work to do to continue to support our customers’ efforts to meet their sustainability commitments.

What regulatory actions are of greatest concern?

Riney: The US regulatory and legislative landscape is extremely active and constantly changing when it comes to plastics. We have concerns about multiple legislative and regulatory efforts in the US today and the possible impacts to our customer’s businesses. We are also very active in advocating for common sense legislation at both the state and federal levels, so we can be an active part of the solution to the plastic waste problem.

One topic in the legislative space that seems to be getting the most attention today is extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation. I would say that we generally support EPR legislation at the state level as a catalyst to improve recycling infrastructure. However, we need a harmonized system in the US to avoid compliance issues for our customers as they navigate multiple differing programs. We also cannot support any legislation that calls for production caps or bans on specific polymers, either explicitly or through unfeasible recycling rate targets.

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CA SB54 is drawing a lot of attention and concern. What’s your view?

Riney: SB54 in California is an excellent example of a well-intentioned piece of legislation that could inhibit sustainability innovation and lead to unintended consequences in that state. Within SB54, there are targets for recycling rates that must be met by specific dates to sell plastic products into California. The first of these targets is a 30% recycling rate by 2028 for all plastic products. The reality is that there are few plastic products in the US that would meet this requirement as of early 2024. More concerning to Ineos Styrolution is the specific timeline that would only impact EPS. The language of the legislation reads as an implicit ban on EPS in the state by 2025.

An EPS ban in packaging products within California will lead to multiple unintended consequences in the state. Fruits, vegetables, seafood, and countless other items are exported from California through robust supply chains across the world. Often, they are packaged in expanded polystyrene containers to help preserve the product through the supply chain. Furthermore, EPS is 90% air which significantly reduces plastic consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in its preferred applications. Removing EPS as a packaging option in California will lead to an increase in GHG emissions and negatively impact the important agricultural markets within the state.

What solutions are seeing increased demand?

Riney: We have been very active in establishing relationships to assure our supply of PCR, bio-based, and bio-circular feedstocks to meet the needs of our customers. I recently attended the Plastics Recycling Conference in Grapevine, TX to expand our relationships in this space and open new product streams.

As I mentioned previously, we are also working with MRF operators and other organizations to expand access to PS recycling. These new product streams will allow us to increase the volume of products we have available to us and, by extension, our customers.

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The technical team at our Regional Development Center in Channahon, IL is also very active in developing new, innovative, and cost-effective PCR products that will meet the needs of our customers in different applications.

One of the biggest hurdles to mass acceptance of PCR polymers in the US has been the elevated cost of the materials. I truly believe our team will find solutions to bring the pricing of our PCR products closer to our traditional virgin products.

These efforts are all essential to our continued growth.

How is the company changing perceptions around styrenics and polystyrene packaging?

Riney: That is an excellent question. At Ineos Styrolution, we understand the importance of changing the narrative surrounding PS and EPS.

Consumers falsely believe that our products are not recyclable, and that EPS foam is a product that must be banned to save the environment. Far from it, our products are essential, safe, recyclable — a leading climate solution. We at Ineos Styrolution are innovating for a better tomorrow.

Our products are chosen as the best solution by our customers in their applications based on their inherent characteristics. PS and EPS require less material in the same application than alternative materials which allow our products to reduce plastic consumption and overall greenhouse gas emissions. This is an essential point that I think consumers miss due to the industry’s inability to cut through in its messaging.

Riney: It is essential to our business that we engage with consumers so that they better understand our products and the benefits they bring to modern life.

There is no hiding from the plastic waste issue globally; consumers desire industry support to solve the problem. We want to be a large part of the solution to the plastic waste problem in the US. We are actively working on projects to expand PS recycling globally to ensure more of our products are diverted from the landfill and made back into valuable products. This is good business and great for the environment.

It is also important for consumers to know that recycling does work, and we need to do more of it in the US. Faith in recycling in the US has been declining for the last decade, which has led to a drop in participation especially among younger generations. We need to reestablish faith in the overall system and drive innovations such as advanced recycling to ensure more materials are recycled in the US. Targeted infrastructure investments are critical to the expansion of recycling in the US and the success of a truly circular economy.

Lastly, what’s the most important thing for PlasticsToday readers to know?

Riney: Ineos Styrolution is innovating for a better tomorrow. We are committed to being a part of the solution to the global plastic waste issue and will continue to collaborate with governments and private companies to ensure more of our products are recycled at scale.

Finally, I want to reiterate that PS is essential, safe, recyclable, a leading climate solution in the new circular plastics economy.

Please feel free to contact us [email protected]. We would love the opportunity to share more with your readers.

About the Author(s)

Rick Lingle

Senior Technical Editor, Packaging Digest and PlasticsToday

Rick Lingle is Senior Technical Editor, Packaging Digest and PlasticsToday. He’s been a packaging media journalist since 1985 specializing in food, beverage and plastic markets. He has a chemistry degree from Clarke College and has worked in food industry R&D for Standard Brands/Nabisco and the R.T. French Co. Reach him at [email protected] or 630-481-1426.

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