Alternative disposal of polystyrene fish boxes


Expanded polystyrene (EPS) fishboxes are widely used throughout the seafood industry for transporting all types of chilled products due to their thermal, shockproof and waterproof properties. However, for many seafood processors or wholesale markets, the disposal of used polystyrene fishboxes can be an expensive and difficult problem. But there are alternatives to simply throwing whole EPS boxes in the bin. Used EPS fishboxes are being successfully and profitably recycled throughout the UK. This page describes various options for the disposal or recycling of used EPS and provides a list of contacts and agencies who can give further assistance.

Legal obligations for large companies

There are legal requirements for recycling packaging waste under the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations. However, these only apply to UK companies or groups of companies that have a total annual turnover of more than £2 million and handle over than 50 tonnes of packaging per year. For further information on this, contact your local environmental regulator (Environment Agency in England and Wales, SEPA in Scotland and DARD in Northern Ireland).

Disposal of polystyrene

Companies are allowed to dispose of used EPS boxes to landfill provided any seafood waste has been removed. Your local authority can advise further on waste disposal services for used packaging.

Businesses with regular quantities of EPS boxes should consider the use of compactors to initially reduce the volume of EPS that is thrown away, which in turn could save money by reducing the number of times the bin requires emptying.

Recycling polystyrene

There are two main options for recycling EPS waste; incineration – yielding energy-recovery, and recycling into other forms such as garden furniture and building insulation. Both require the EPS to be compacted first.

Compacting polystyrene

Compaction can be carried out with heat (thermal densification), or without heat (cold compaction).

Cold compaction involves crushing and compacting fishboxes by machine. The compacted boxes are extruded into a solid ‘tube’. The tube is cut to length to fit onto a pallet. It is usual for the compacted EPS to be stored on-site until 5 to 25 metric tonnes are available, as this makes transport and distribution more cost-effective. The more densely compacted the EPS is, the better, since a higher weight of EPS can be loaded for transport and a higher price per tonne may be paid by the recycler. Cold compaction can reduce EPS volume down to one-fortieth of the original. For shipping overseas the EPS is hand loaded into a forty-foot sea container (requiring 15-25 Tonnes).

Thermal densification involves breaking up and heating EPS inside a controlled-temperature chamber. The temperature is accurately controlled to allow the EPS to melt without burning. This collapses the expanded foam cells, enabling it then to be recycled into other products. Higher compaction ratios (up to 95% volume reduction) can be achieved using higher temperatures but the end product has fewer recycling options and is most suited to incineration with energy recovery or disposal to landfill. Thermal densification equipment will also treat and densify other plastic waste products, e.g. plastic drinks bottles. If there are paper labels included with the fishboxes the thermally-densified product cannot be recycled. However it can be burnt/incinerated for energy recovery.

Prices for compacted EPS

Compacted EPS is a financially valuable polymer for recycling and is economically much in demand. Its value also varies according to location, cleanliness, level of compaction and current market situation. Contaminants such as seafood waste, oils, excess moisture, ice, malodours and the presence of paper labels can create problems for recycling and reduce the prices paid.

Compaction Equipment

Machines for cold compacting and thermal densification of EPS fishboxes are available to hire or buy within the UK from a number of sources Both types of equipment have various sizes of machine available, with varying throughputs and capacities. See below and ‘further information’ section for details.

For a company with around 25 tonnes of EPS per year, the payback period for a compacting machine costing around £20,000 can be as short as two years, if the compacted EPS is sold to a recycling company. This is a cost-effect alternative to landfill. Contact our recyclers for further information.

In England, FIFG grant assistance of 20-30 per cent funding is available for capital costs of EPS compacting machinery. For further information contact Steve Bailey on 07876 035733 or email Similar FIFG funding may be available in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. See contacts list for details of the relevant regulator.

‘Regional’ collection/recycling schemes

For companies with a large volume of EPS waste, it may be cost-effective to establish an in-house EPS compaction facility, to supply EPS recyclers direct. Alternatively companies within a similar area may benefit from a communal collection and compaction service. For example, Fishgate in Hull provides this service for seafood processors and other businesses in Hull and the surrounding area. Similarly in Grimsby, ENVIRO (GY) Ltd, offers an EPS recycling service to the seafood sector within the Grimsby area, although they have recently established Scottish and London based initiatives. Both these organisations carry out EPS compaction and export the material, charging seafood companies for providing this service.

Alternative materials to EPS

Businesses with a well-managed distribution chain (guaranteed 0 to 4°C at all times), may not require the highly effective insulative properties provided by EPS. Alternative types of packaging are available which perform very well in chilled distribution systems. These include waxed cardboard, corrugated plastic, and plastic pouches or trays although new materials are emerging all the time. For example an EU project completed in August 2005 has been developing a novel alternative material to EPS with good insulation and designed to be re-used a number of times.

Further information

Further information on these areas and relevant contact details are available in the following table. The list is not exhaustive but merely indicative of products or services currently available. Their inclusion on the table does not infer that Seafish in anyway endorses their products or services. Any companies that wish to be added to the list should contact the Technology Implementation department at Seafish by emailing