NY Mayor Bloomberg pushes for citywide polystyrene ban

February 14, 2013

In his final State of the City address, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for a citywide ban on polystyrene foam food packaging from stores and restaurants.

"One product that is virtually impossible to recycle and never biodegrades is plastic foam," Bloomberg said. "It's something that we know is environmentally destructive and that may be hazardous to our health, that is costing taxpayers money and that we can easily do without."

He said that polystyrene foam adds up to $20 per ton in recycling costs because it needs to be removed from the recycling stream. The city handles about 1.2 million tons of food waste and the mayor's office estimates 20,000 tons of that is polystyrene foam.

"We can live without it, we may live longer without it," Bloomberg said. "Don't worry, the doggie bag and the coffee cup will survive just fine."

For the ban to become law, the City Council must approve it. The New York Times reports that City Council speaker Christine C. Quinn said that she was open to a ban on plastic foam as part of a larger effort to increase recycling. 

"It lives forever," Quinn told the publication. "It's worse than cockroaches." 

PS foam is a lightweight petroleum-based plastic material used for serving or transporting prepared foods, such as plates, bowls, clamshells and cups. This type of packaging is commonly referred to as Styrofoam, a registered trademark of Dow Chemical.

However, according to Dow, the Styrofoam brand name is often misused as a generic term for disposable foam products. There isn't a coffee cup, cooler or packaging material in the world made from actual Styrofoam brand extruded polystyrene foam insulation, the company said.

In response to Bloomberg's proposed ban, Steve Russell, VP of plastics for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), said that the ACC welcomes the opportunity to explore polystyrene foam foodservice recycling with NYC.  

He said the technology exists to recycle polystyrene foam foodservice right now. For example, in California 22% of households can recycle PS foam foodservice cups, plates, bowls, clamshells and other containers at curbside, which equates to more than eight million people, he said. Similar programs don't exist for other takeout foodservice. 

In addition, Russell said that many people mistakenly believe that paper cups and plates are being recycled, however, there is no significant commercial recycling of these products.

Polystyrene foam foodservice products make up less than one percent of our nation's solid waste, according to EPA.

A study comparing the energy consumption, water use, solid waste (by weight and volume), and greenhouse gas emissions for PS, paper, and bioplastic PLA (polylactic acid) found that PS uses less energy and water than its "green" competitors over its lifecycle from production to transportation to disposal.

The peer-reviewed study was commissioned by the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group of the ACC, with the researchers declaring that PS's lightweight was the primary reason that it uses "significantly" less energy and water than comparable paper-based or corn-based alternatives.

PS foam products consume half as much energy as wax-coated paperboard cups and one-third as much as PLA clamshells, the report stated.

"Polystyrene foam and other plastic foodservice products are affordable, convenient, sanitary and sturdy, they stand up to greasy chili, keep our hot drinks hot without scalding our hands and keep our food fresher and ready to eat," Russell said. "As more of us are eating and drinking far from home, while driving to work, on the street corner - they help make possible the way we eat and live today."

The PS volume market is expected to reach 34 million tons by 2016 primarily supported by the segments - expanded polystyrene rigid plastics (EPS) and extruded polystyrene (XPS), according to Research and Markets, an international market research firm. Globally, EPS and XPS together account for approximately 68% of the market share and are expected to support the PS industry going forward.

Geographical analysis for PS shows positive Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 8% is anticipated from Europe region during the analysis period 2011-2016. Asia-Pacific and the Americas follow Europe with second and third positions in terms of growth rates.

California bans

While there is access to recycling PS in some areas of California, more than 70 jurisdictions in California, including inland and coastal, large and small municipalities, have enacted some sort of polystyrene food-packaging ban. All of these jurisdictions' food vendors must provide take out in alternative packaging including, paper, plastic, compostable materials, aluminum foil, etc.

Expanded polystyrene foam accounts for 15% of storm drain litter, according to the California Department of Transportation.

San Francisco was the first major city to enact the ban in 2007, which required that all takeout food packaging be recyclable or compostable.

Last fall, Senate Bill 568 called for a statewide ban on polystyrene food packaging in California. The GOP-led U.S. House of Representatives rejected the bill.

Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, told PlasticsToday that the association strongly opposed the proposed ban. VICA is a business advocacy organization that represents employers throughout the Los Angeles County region at the local, state and federal levels of government.

Waldman said a statewide ban would cost California nearly 1,000 jobs, $6 million in tax revenue and $335 million in wages. For example, polystyrene manufacturer Dart Container would have to close down production at its plants in Lodi and Corona since the company only produces foam food containers.

"By creating a plastic food packaging ban, it will end up costing jobs," he said. "That's one of the most frustrating things, our elected officials make these decisions and are told it will cost jobs but still go ahead with it. While at the same time, there's a chance companies could end up shutting down and moving out of state, but it doesn't seem like they care."  

The bill did state that California jobs would actually increase if SB 568 was passed. Currently, there are more jobs manufacturing non-foam packaging in California than foam food packaging related jobs, the bill stated.

Keith Christman, managing director of the plastics markets for the ACC, told PlasticsToday in August he does not believe bans are the solution to waste reduction. 

"Litter is certainly a challenge," he said. "But we have to work on preventing litter and making sure products are disposed of properly and recycled after use."

Christman said the value and economic benefits of polystyrene proves it's a good choice for both the environment and for restaurants.

"I think many communities have looked at the facts and they strongly support maintaining polystyrene," he said. "Many groceries and restaurants know the value of polystyrene products. People are going to continue to use it."

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