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Chuck Gallagher, operations manager for Commodore Plastics, has a term for supporters of bans on polystyrene foam foodservice packaging."I guess they're just 'foam haters,'" he told PlasticsToday. "They hate all packaging. If there were a way to get a product to the grocery store in a safe fashion without packaging - that would be ideal for them. But foam is only about 5% material, so what they are looking for?"

Heather Caliendo

August 8, 2013

4 Min Read
A look at the economics of polystyrene foam foodservice bans

Chuck Gallagher, operations manager for Commodore Plastics, has a term for supporters of bans on polystyrene foam foodservice packaging.

"I guess they're just 'foam haters,'" he told PlasticsToday. "They hate all packaging. If there were a way to get a product to the grocery store in a safe fashion without packaging - that would be ideal for them. But foam is only about 5% material, so what they are looking for?"

Bloomfield, NY-based Commodore Plastics manufactures foam trays for meat processors and grocery stores. When word got out about New York City's proposed ban, the company was less than pleased. Especially since almost all of its foam sales are in the U.S.

"A ban in New York City would hurt," said Brad Braddon, president of Commodore Plastics. "When I hear about the bans, for me, it's just politics. It seems that they don't have any idea about foam or even much reason on why they think it's bad, it's not based on facts, but hearsay."

image.JPGThe legislation that was introduced in June by several New York City Council members will prevent operators from using polystyrene foam packaging at restaurants, cafes, delicatessens, coffee shops, grocery stores, vending trucks or carts and cafeterias.

If passed, the law will go to effect on July 1, 2015 and according to the proposed bill, operators would face fines if violations occur.

Since June, when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed ban on polystyrene foam foodservice was introduced to the City Council, more than 1000 local businesses have written personal letters to members of the City Council in opposition to the legislation.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) states that the proposed ban, which is supported by Mayor Bloomberg, has the potential to cost New York City and state nearly $100 million per year.

According to a recent study published by MB Public Affairs, for every $1.00 now spent on polystyrene foam foodservice and drink containers, businesses will have to spend at least $1.94 on the alternative replacements.

The ACC said a ban in New York mean that 1200 jobs could be in jeopardy.

At the same time, Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund state that consumer demand for more eco-friendly packaging has expanded jobs in non-foam food service packaging manufacturing. For example, in California the organization said that it found approximately 1150 jobs related to manufacturing foam food packaging. However, they found more than 2000 jobs related to the manufacture of non-foam alternatives in California.

No clear cut answer

Braddon said that when you compare lifecycle analysis of different materials, polystyrene foodservice packaging requires less energy and resources to manufacture than comparable paper-based products.

It's estimated that PS foam makes up less than 1% of the total weight of landfill materials. Still, it takes hundreds, if image.JPGnot thousands of years, to decompose, which is one reason the Bloomberg administration believes the ban is justified.

Since EPS must be kept clean and separate from other types of plastic, it can be difficult to recycle. Currently, the New York City plastics recycling program does not accept EPS for collection.

"A ban in New York City would cost businesses, consumers and taxpayers millions of dollars, as well as threaten jobs in the restaurant industry, in upstate manufacturing plants, and in companies that reuse foam in the greater metropolitan area," said City Council Member Peter Vallone, in a release. "Foam can and should be recycled, and I urge the Mayor to work with the Council to explore this option instead of a ban."

new study by Moore Recycling Associates on behalf of ACC found that access to polystyrene foam foodservice recycling has expanded much more quickly than the recycling of alternative products, and determined that 50% of the population of major cities in California have access to foam recycling, compared with 15% of those same cities recycling or composting paper-based alternatives. 

Still, there are currently 72 PS bans in California. Clean Water states that less than 1% of PS foam is actually recycled in California.

"There is a set of lifecycle issues with the product; bans are addressing one piece of the problem," said Jonathan Scott, communication for the development and donor services for the Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund. "The burden of the waste of the single use application is creating a financial and environmental burden on communities."

Braddon said his company is in favor of recycling. Another option they find interesting is waste to energy.

"Why not take the dinner foam trade and incinerate it to have more than one use out of it?" he said. "I do think waste to energy is a smart way to deal with mixed streams of plastics."

Opponents to the ban have been organizing through the Restaurant Action Alliance NYC, a coalition of labor, business, and community leaders. It is supported by a range of groups and businesses that will be impacted by the ban, including restaurants, the National Federation of Independent Business and others.

"Manufacturers of PS know that it's an extremely efficient material," Braddon said. "In my personal opinion, it's irresponsible leadership to be pushing bans without mentioning facts."

Part three of this series will include alternatives to PS and an interview with San Francisco's Zero Waste Coordinator.

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