Plastic Foam Extraction and Compaction
Blue Goblin was founded in 2014 to provide a solution to a pressing problem: the challenges posed by disposal of plastic foams, including ISO, XPS, EPS, and PUR foams. These foams — found in everything from building insulation to refrigerated trucking units to mattresses — are extremely bulky and difficult to compact, making them difficult to recycle. At the same time, they take up significant landfill space, do not decompose quickly, and can release harmful ozone-depleting gasses. Blue Goblin was founded to offer a convenient, cost-effective recycling option for these materials. While our recycling efforts have expanded beyond plastic foam recycling, responsible recycling of plastic foams remains a core part of our mission.
What is Plastic Foam?
Plastic foam is everywhere – in the roof and walls of your office building, in your bed, your car and your office chair, in the packaging your new computer or your fast food lunch came in. These useful foams come in many types, including:
• isocyanurate (ISO) foam, commonly found in roofing and wall insulation;
• extruded polystyrene (XPS) foam, commonly found in building insulation (roofs, walls, and pipes) and in refrigerated transport units;
• polyurethane (PUR) foam, commonly found in building insulation, mattresses and other furniture, carpet padding, and boats and floatation devices;
• expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam, commonly found in food and consumer product packaging.
What is plastic foam, and why is it so common?
Foam is plastic that is deliberately made to be not solid. In some foam, the plastic forms bubbles which trap gasses that are used to create the foam. These gasses, blowing agents, expand during the creation of the foam and then are trapped in pockets as the resin hardens. This kind of foam – closed cell foam – has excellent insulating properties, and is common in building insulation, refrigerated transport and storage, food packaging, airplane and ship cushions (for floatation), and many other applications.
In other foams, rather than creating pockets, the blowing agent gasses create pathways as they escape from the interior to the surface of the plastic before the resin hardens. This kind of foam – open cell foam – has good compressibility and is common in mattresses and furniture.
Why Does Plastic Foam Pose Such a Disposal Challenge?
Both open-cell and closed-cell foam have proven themselves to be extremely useful during their lifespan, but share common problems when the time comes to dispose of them.
Foams are bulky and inefficient to transport. A trailer full of roof insulation weighs very little, nowhere near the allowable weight limit. It takes many more trailers to dispose of foam than a comparable weight of, for example, shingles. This can add cost, as disposal fees are commonly per load, not per pound.
Foams pose a problem for the landfill once they arrive. They are difficult to compact, and shredding the foam causes fluff while still being an inefficient use of available landfill volume. Mattresses, for instance, are specifically designed to hold their shape under stress, and can have a compaction rate up to 400% less than regular garbage. Foam resin does not degrade quickly and clogs up volume for the landfill.
Foam disposal can contribute to ozone depletion and global warming. The US EPA and others have found early blowing agent gasses such as CFC-11 and CFC-12 to be Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS) with high Global Warming Potential (GWP). Although the Montreal Protocol banned these substances in new foam products after 1993, foams manufactured before that date likely contain these gasses, and create significant environmental challenges if not properly disposed. The CFCs banned by the Montreal Protocol were initially replaced with HCFCs such as HCFC-22 and HCFC-141b, which, although an improvement, also turned out to have significant global warming potential.
Beginning around 2000, plastic foams have increasingly been manufactured with alternative blowing agents that lessen the environmental impact of these foams. Nevertheless, significant quantities of foam manufactured with the older blowing agents remain in use, and these foams present disposal challenges when they are no longer needed. Of particular concern, rigid, closed-cell foams are likely to retain a significant amount of high global warming potential gasses trapped in their pockets at end-of-life, and shredding of these foams – common if the foams are to be landfilled – can “pop” these pockets and release the blowing agents into the atmosphere.
Both the EPA and the California Air Resources Board have recognized disposal of plastic foams as a significant source of global warming and of ozone-depleting substances:
- In a recent publication, the U.S. EPA states, “Although there is limited experience to date in recovering and destroying foam insulation from buildings in the U.S., ODS foam recovery represents a significant opportunity for reducing emissions of ozone depleting substances and greenhouse gasses.”
- The EPA describes recovery and reclamation of building foams at the time of demolition as “a best practice.”
- California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) considers plastic foam emissions such a significant global warming threat that it has developed a Foam Recovery and Destruction Program to study and encourage responsible disposal of these foams.
- According to a recent CARB study, the vast majority of insulation foams that arise from the buildings sector and from decommissioned refrigerated transport units are being landfilled. Nevertheless, CARB believes that “[t]he opportunity for mitigation of emissions from foams remains highly significant, particularly at end-of-life.”
- The CARB study estimates that, if just 50% of the insulating foam reaching end-of-life in California were responsibly disposed, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by up to 8.7 million MTCO2eq by 2020 — that’s the equivalent of removing 180,000 cars per year from the road.
How Can Blue Goblin Help?
We at Blue Goblin appreciate plastic foam for its insulating and compression characteristics. In applications in which it is used it is the best solution, and it adds to our quality of life in myriad ways.
We do not, however, accept that the current end of life scenario for these foams is the best that can be done. Our services offer a unique combination:
♦ Mobile, on-site compaction, which limits transportation costs and landfill volume
♦ Reuse or recycling of most foam components and other by-products, further reducing landfill burden and environmental impact
♦ Closed system to capture and neutralize blowing agent gasses, reducing or eliminating the global warming potential of those gasses
♦ Customized services to make each project as convenient and cost-effective as possible
We have heard the EPA and California’s Air Resource Board identify plastic foam recycling as a major challenge and a major opportunity, and we have also heard them question the economic viability of current solutions.
Blue Goblin is the economically viable option for proper treatment of these foams. Call us today to get started.