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Inventive ways of repurposing EPS

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An inside look at efforts by University of Technology Sydney students to find creative ways to repurpose expanded polystyrene.

In a recently published article on The Conversation (1), Tom Lee, a lecturer in the Faculty of Design and Architecture Building at the University of Technology Sydney, outlined potential design opportunities for waste expanded polystyrene (EPS) to be repurposed instead of going into landfill.

In the article, Lee and his colleagues discuss the mounting challenge of dealing with unwanted EPS – 12,000 tonnes of which is sent to landfill every year in NSW alone – and why finding ways to repurpose EPS can flip the narrative on EPS from a waste crisis to a design opportunity.

As a proud, long-time member of the EPSA, Foamex is a vocal and active supporter of EPS recycling. Our recycling facilities serve EPS end-users, building and road construction sites, as well as other EPS manufacturers.

Justin Kelsey, General Manager of Foamex Group, has been closely following the efforts of Lee and his Master of Design students at UTS.

“As a community, we all need to be thinking of creative ways of keeping EPS waste out of landfill,” Mr Kelsey said. “Recycling and repurposing of EPS waste should be a top priority for all EPS producers. At Foamex, our granulating machines reduce moulded EPS into beads that are reformed into new products.”

In the below Q&A, Lee outlines the impetus for the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) design project and why EPS need not simply end up in landfill.

Q: What surprising repurposing opportunities did your students find for EPS?
A: We began by investigating how the [EPS] material behaved. The students were doing experiments at home in their ovens and sandwich presses with acetates. Those processes of material experimentation led them in very different directions. One student had the idea of creating a laptop case, as one of the properties of EPS is it can be used as a protective layer. That didn't go as we hoped, as once you apply heat to it, it hardens and wasn't good protection for a laptop.

But what we did find in that experiment was that it bonds really well with material, so we were thinking about potential applications in fashion, where it could work as a button or a clasp that could be moulded directly to a garment. But we thought bonding it to the material directly might cause problems for the waste stream down the track.

Another student was making from an EPS mould something that could be attached to a plastic drink bottle to ensure that people reuse the bottle rather than throw it away. It was a little clasp that you put onto the neck of the drink bottle to ensure that you use it three or four times. We still have work to do on that to determine if it's too brittle or not for that kind of design. There are ideas that are still in progress in the next stage of the work.

Q: What other interesting findings came out of the project?
A: One interesting thing to come out of the design experimentation phase was that EPS actually has quite aesthetically appealing properties if you mould it in the right way. One student moulded it in a way that the EPS was in contact with steel, which can create a very smooth, slick, almost glass-like sheen finish. And if the material has a rougher finish it looks almost like bone and is very porous.

With that contrast you could quite easily make a vase or a similar small object with a fair bit of EPS in it. But with a smaller object you're not really getting bang for your buck in terms of the amount of energy and EPS you're using. But something slightly bigger, like a large vase, would look quite nice if it was designed in the right way.

There was huge variation in the direction students took the project. And that's just the tip of the iceberg of the different directions that we could take it.

Q: What parameters did you put around the project?
A: We wanted to look at whether the product requires additional additives; whether it requires high amounts of energy to produce; whether it's durable; how likely is it to be disposed of; is it a marketable product; is it a necessity; how much EPS is used to create it; is the product less material intensive than the one that it is replacing; does it have educational value; is it easily recycled? All those things are at the forefront of our mind.

Q: What are some of the broader applications that may come from the project?
A: One of the interesting things about working within the UTS campus is it's a small to medium sized context. There are maybe 40,000 people here in total and we can make interventions into our own waste stream in terms of where waste is collected to have the kinds of effects that we want.

That potentially could have a scalable application to other communities across Sydney of a similar size, if making changes at a national or a state or local council level is a bit slower. Our hope is that we can come up with some helpful insights and tools for people in those contexts that they can use to divert more EPS from landfill. And ideally have it recycled in Australia as close as possible to where the initial wastage is.

At Foamex, our recycling facilities serve EPS end-users, building and road construction sites, and other EPS manufacturers. Find out more.

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