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The Waste That Wasn't

(published with permission of the Polystyrene Packaging Council)

Waste diversion means many things, including developing alternatives to conventional waste disposal and minimizing the use of materials in manufacturing. While the amount of materials which are disposed of in the United States has been extensively studied, the waste that was not created through source reduction has never been quantified. The polystyrene industry has taken the initiative to analyze its own efforts to divert waste in "Waste Management and Reduction Trends in the Polystyrene Industry, 1974-1994."

"We found that source reduction efforts, as well as reuse and recycling, have a measurable, positive impact on solid waste management," said Marge Franklin, president of Franklin Associates, which administered the report. "In addition to eliminating thousands of tons of solid waste through source reduction, we found the industry has doubled its recovery of polystyrene for recycling and reuses significant amounts of loose fill polystyrene. A comparison of weights of polystyrene packaging and disposables with products made of alternative materials shows the use of polystyrene cut the waste disposed of by one-half in 1990," said Franklin.

Organized to reflect polystyrene industry achievements in waste minimization, this 40-page study covers all types of polystyrene packaging and disposables -- from injection molding to extrusion and expandable bead. Using various case studies on source reduction and reuse, the study indicates that polystyrene waste diversion has had the greatest impact in reducing wastes from 1986 to 1994.

Most source reduction activities occur as part of the manufacturing process and have not been widely included in discussions of municipal solid waste. This report measures the positive impact of source reduction activities. Source reduction activities are those which use materials more efficiently and include:

For example, an average foam plate today requires 25 percent less polystyrene to produce than it did in 1974. This report shows that overall, polystyrene products have been source reduced nine percent since 1974 -- which means that nine percent less polystyrene was used to manufacture the same amount of products. Between 1974 and 1994, the amount of polystyrene packaging and disposables that was diverted through source reduction increased more than 20-fold, eliminating more than 800,000 tons of polystyrene generation over the 20-year period.

Reuse is another form of waste diversion covered in the report. Reuse is important not only because it delays the final disposal of a product, but also because it reduces the manufacture and purchase of new products, all of which prevent waste. Polystyrene loose fill is one of the most commonly reused packaging materials. Nearly 30 percent of all loose fill (or "peanuts") is reused, and for mailing services, the reuse rate of loose fill is as high as 50 percent. Reuse of loose fill polystyrene reduced virgin polystyrene demand by 22 million pounds in 1994 alone.

Source reduction can make a positive contribution toward conserving resources -- as significant as recycling. One way to evaluate the impact of source reduction is to compare the resources saved by preventing waste versus recycling. According to Franklin Assoc., in order for recycling efforts to save as much energy as source reduction, a recovery rate of 24 percent would need to be achieved.

This is just a sampling of the information contained in "Waste Management and Reduction Trends in the Polystyrene Industry, 1974-1994." The full report is available for purchase through the Polystyrene Packaging Council (PSPC).