Foam Fiasco

Polystyrene foodservice packaging – you know, the stuff we drink our morning coffee out of and what our food comes in when we order takeout – accounts for about 0.4 percent, by weight, of the total one percent of polystyrene products generated in municipal solid waste. It’s a small percentage, but more can be done and recycling locations are available nationwide to make that happen.

So why has this product come under fire in New York City all of a sudden?

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says expanded polystyrene foam products are environmentally harmful and have no place in the city because there are better options and alternatives. “If more cities across the country follow our lead and institute similar bans, those alternatives will soon become more plentiful and will cost less,” he says.

Translation: There are not a lot of alternatives right now and it’s going to be pricey.

Subpar Alternatives

Brad Braddon, president of Commodore Machine Co., a Bloomfield, N.Y.-based food-packaging manufacturer, says the ban is bad for his business, as well as others like it around the country and in New York City. 

He explains that the current alternatives to foam cups will be paper cups, molded fiber will be used rather than foam to make school lunch trays, which are harder to clean and will result in more waste, and hinge lid containers could be replaced with molded fiber, aluminum with a paper lid or clear plastic containers.

“Welcome to cold coffee after 15 to 20 minutes; molded fiber trays that cost more to make, more to transport and they cannot be cleaned for recycling; and the hinge lid container alternatives all have a higher lifetime energy and material content than foam,” Braddon says.

The de Blasio Administration consulted with corporations, including Dart Container Corp. – the source for the above statistic on polystyrene foodservice packaging in the wastestream – as well as nonprofits, vendors, stakeholders and the New York Department of Sanitation to determine the product cannot be recycled, which led to the ban. 

“By removing 30,000 tons of expanded polystyrene waste from our landfills, streets and waterways, [this] announcement is a major step towards our goal of a greener, greater New York City,” de Blasio says.

A Recycling Reality

“What many people, however, are unwilling to admit, is that litter is a ‘people issue’ not a product issue,” according to Dart Container Corp. The company goes on to state that many websites, studies and organizations dedicated to studying and solving litter problems agree that the product should not be blamed. 

“Condemning a product and removing it from use simply because of its potential to become litter is an unrealistic approach to the problem.”

So is this really a product problem or is it a people problem? 

A possible solution to continuing to allow the use of foam products in New York City could have been to create a recycling program for polystyrene (ESP) waste and to educate people on it. The street or waterways do not count as responsible receptacles, but I guess it is the product’s fault for winding up there.

The ESP Industry Alliance says that many people are not aware polystyrene packaging is recyclable and that it is already being recycled by businesses and consumers throughout the United States. Its Recycling Rate Study reports that more than 125 million pounds of ESP was recycled in 2013. 

The more than 125 million pounds of ESP that was a recycled includes 72.8 million pounds of post-commercial and post-consumer packaging, as well as 54.5 million pounds of post-industrial recovery.

ESP can be recycled into new foam packaging or durable consumer goods such as cameras and coat hangers. Drop-off locations are located throughout the United States.

Despite the recycling information available, New York City approved the ban on ESP after considering environmental effectiveness, economic feasibility and employee safety. 

“The analysis was based on a recycling strategy that would have incorporated ESP into the current metal, glass, plastic and carton commingling collection program and that would not create a separate collection or sorting program,” de Blasio’s office explains.

“This is not a food safety issue or environmental issue,” Braddon says. “The facts speak so loudly it’s hard to believe that a law like this can pass. This is about politics – bad politics. The mayor had an opportunity to implement a recycling program at the expense of the industry, rather than the taxpayer. Polystyrene foam is being recycled in many places; it could have been recycled in NYC.” 

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