Start-up invents way to upcycle expanded polystyrene into food-safe bowls – ABC News

A possible world-first recycling method for expanded polystyrene (EPS) — commonly used as packaging and in the building and construction industry — has been designed in a small shed in regional South Australia.

Key points:

Brad Scott began recycling two years ago with his start-up, transforming used plastic bread tags into food-safe bowls.

He has now turned his attention to another kind of waste.

“In Australia, we tend not to recycle [EPS] at all; we bury it,” he said.

Not content with current methods of dealing with the waste, Mr Scott set his sights on upcycling it, using a similar system he designed for bread tags.

“There’s a small amount of councils that are densifying [it],” he said.

“They send it to China, and China makes things, like coat hangers and picture frames.

“But the idea with an upcycle is basically taking it from one level on the recycling chain and throwing it up a notch, so I’m giving it a purpose above and beyond what it had previously.”

EPS a challenge to recycle

According to the most recent Australian Plastics Recycling Survey, almost 58,000 tonnes of EPS was consumed in Australia in 2018–19. 

Roughly 45 per cent of this was used in the built environment sector, 21 per cent for electrical and electronic purposes, and 20 per cent in packaging.

Styrofoam packing peanuts.

Wikimedia: BrokenSphere

Planet Ark’s Nicole Garofano said the plastic recycling rates were low.

“One of the central issues with EPS is the low recovery rate of the material, with just 6,600 tonnes of all EPS consumed in Australia being recovered for either domestic or offshore reprocessing,” Ms Garofano, the head of the not-for-profit’s circular economy development unit, said.

“This equates to about an 11.4 per cent recovery rate, a smidge lower than the overall plastics recovery rate of 11.5 per cent in 2018–19.

“This means nearly 90 per cent of all the EPS consumed in Australia ends up in landfill, where, due to its low weight-size ratio, it takes up substantial space and stays in its form for hundreds of years.”

EPS cannot be recycled through most kerbside recycling, as it breaks up and contaminates other waste. It’s also one of the most common materials found in illegally dumped rubbish.

In March this year, the federal government held the first National Plastics Summit and released the National Plastics Plan, which would see the government partner with industry, states, and territories to boost Australia’s recycling capacity.

Some EPS packaging products have been identified as “problematic and unnecessary single-use plastics”, with a recommendation they be removed from production and a review is slated for 2022.

Meanwhile, more than 60 major companies have signed a deal to drastically reduce plastic waste by 2025, specifically through reducing packaging.

A new direction for upcycling

Entrepreneur Brad Scott believes he may be among the first in the world to recycle EPS for food-safe products.

“There might be someone out there doing what I’m doing, but I can’t find them at the moment on the internet,” he said.

“People are making it into coat hangers, picture frames, insulation, all that sort of stuff, but no-one’s made it into something you can eat out of.”

A man stands in front of a machine, holding a white plastic bowl.

Supplied: Brad Scott

Based in the small regional town of Robe, he collects EPS where he can and uses council equipment to help with the recycling process.

“At the moment, what I do is collect limited stuff from industry around Robe,” he said.

“The main type of EPS we get is packaging around white goods, hot water systems, electrical stuff from tradies, and also packing boxes for food.

“We take it to [council facilities at] Mount Gambier and put it through their machine, which takes the air out of it.”

Mr Scott then takes the material back to his workshop and moulds it into bowls using custom-built machinery.

“If you see the plastic bowl, you wouldn’t put two and two together and think it’s from an [EPS] box,” he said.

He had to send the bowls overseas to ensure they were food-safe.

“We don’t actually have the labs in Australia to do this migration testing for food, so Hong Kong is the closest one I could find,” Mr Scott said.

Three coloured bowls sit in front of white polystyrene.

Supplied: Brad Scott

Change led to ingenuity

Being a recycling guru wasn’t always the plan for Mr Scott.

After years of working in the corporate world in Brisbane, he was burnt out and took to the road with his wife, Narelle.

The couple picked up jobs in motels as they travelled around the country, before finally settling in Robe.

It was there, in his shed, that Mr Scott delved into the Precious Plastic global recycling movement, which inspired him to start his own recycling business using bread tags.

A man and woman smile, standing together on a bridge over water, with a coastline behind them.

ABC: Halina Baczkowski

“I came home like Jack and the Beanstalk with his magic beans,” he said.

“I said, ‘I’ve seen this thing on YouTube — that’s what I’m going to do’.”

According to Ms Scott, the fresh start — and innovative new business — was just what they needed.

“We just needed to change it up,” she said.

“I think change is wonderful.

“Out of change comes good, so I always embrace it.”

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