FOOD & BEVERAGES: The Polystyrene Option
Recent Western Cape Business News
THE use and recycling of polystyrene in the food industry has increased over the past few years through the various awareness initiatives created by industry organisation, the Polystyrene Packaging Council (PSPC) of South Africa.
Two types of polystyrene are used in the food industry, namely expanded polystyrene (EPS) which is used to make cups, bowls, plates and egg cartons, as well as packaging for take-away foods, and high impact polystyrene (HIPS), which is used for making cutlery, yoghurt and cottage cheese containers, clear salad containers and clear plastic cups.
“Polystyrene is the preferred packaging material, particularly in the food industry”, says PSPC director Adri Spangenberg. “It is a cost-effective and environment-friendly alternative to other packaging materials”, she says, noting that the increased use of polystyrene in the food industry can be attributed to the advantages it offers.
“Modern polystyrene packaging insulates better, keeps food fresher for longer, costs less than alternative packaging materials uses less resources”, explains Spangenberg.
Apart from the fact that polystyrene is cheaper than many other alternative packaging material, it can also be reprocessed and moulded into new packaging products and be recycled up to ten times. “It arguably has the lowest carbon footprint thanks to its light weight. Only about 4% of expanded polystyrene foam packaging is polystyrene, the rest is air. As a result, polystyrene foodservice packaging uses less energy and resources to manufacture than alternative products. Once manufactured, it is easy to transport and less material needs to be recycled,” Spangenberg says.
All packaging leaves an environmental footprint - regardless of material type. It takes energy and raw materials to produce, transport, and recover or dispose of all materials. It is therefore important to measure all of these impacts throughout the entire lifecycle of the product. She points out that styrene, the monomer polystyrene is manufactured from, is not toxic but a natural product found in many foodstuffs including strawberries, beans, wine and coffee beans. “The safety benefits of polystyrene have been thoroughly tested and undisputedly proved by the US Food and Drug Administration, who has also been regulating the safety of food-contact packaging since 1958.”
With the high health and regulation standards that the local and international food industries have to adhere to, tests have shown that using polystyrene prevents the spread of diseases, protects food from bacteria and moisture, guarantees food quality and a longer shelf life. Scientific research has also proven that polystyrene packaging can come directly into contact with food as it is completely lifeless and meets all the prevailing international health standards. Because polystyrene offers chemical resistance, it allows for many products to be packed without the goods being affected.
Furthermore, polystyrene protects the contents and maintains a high strength and shape, even if it is being used to present foodstuffs. “Polystyrene is greatly superior to other materials when it comes to the creation of shapes and colours, making it a creative material to work with. The natural transparency and brilliancy of polystyrene are two assets for an excellent presentation of foodstuffs at the point of sale.”
Contrary to the disinformation and rumours being spread, polystyrene is not ‘filling up’ the country’s landfills. In fact, polystyrene foodservice packaging currently accounts for less than 1% by weight and volume of land-filled materials. This does not mean, however, that recycling is not a major driving force of the PSPC, Spangenberg says.
“We have already set up various recycling programmes and initiatives across South Africa and are even assisting neighbouring states such as Zimbabwe with their polystyrene recycling efforts. We are continuously working with converters and developers to find new applications and possibilities for using recycled polystyrene, such as the making of photo frames, skirtings and even stationery.”
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