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Fuming Over Foam

Whether polystyrene foam can be effectively recycled is at the heart of a battle between New York City and industry

by Alexander H. Tullo
March 23, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 12

Credit: iStock
Environmentalists say expanded polystyrene cups contribute to litter problems.
A photo of an expanded polystyrene cup in the grass.
Credit: iStock
Environmentalists say expanded polystyrene cups contribute to litter problems.

A couple of blocks from the delicatessens, discount stores, and auto customization shops of working-class South Brooklyn, N.Y., stands an environmental wonder.

The Sunset Park Materials Recycling Facility, which opened in 2013, processes barges full of metal, plastic, and glass recyclables collected from throughout the city. Inside, refuse cascades through conveyors and contraptions that sort through all the trash.

One machine strips away the blue recycling bags New Yorkers put out on the curb. A set of conveyors runs trash through magnets and eddy currents to pluck out metals. An optical sorter extracts marketable plastics such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyethylene; plastic milk jugs are gathered by the thousands. Bales of processed materials are loaded on railcars, which are rolled onto barges and sent off to processing plants elsewhere in the U.S.

But the facility won’t be recycling expanded polystyrene (EPS) anytime soon. In January, New York City squelched plans to establish a citywide curbside polystyrene recycling program. Instead, it will ban single-use polystyrene foam materials such as drinking cups, clamshell takeout containers, and packing peanuts.

The city determined that starting a polystyrene program is impractical, even with incentives offered by the polystyrene packaging maker Dart Container. By being the largest city to impose such a ban, the city says it is taking the lead in eradicating an insidious form of waste.

Dart and its allies within the recycling industry accuse the city of putting politics above sound environmental policy. They say New York City missed the chance to take the lead by helping to establish a postconsumer polystyrene foam market. More than just a battle over one plastic, the controversy tests the limits of what is possible in polymer recycling.

The battle lines were drawn in 2013, when New York City passed a law banning EPS food service trays, cups, and other polystyrene foam products by the middle of 2015. Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; and Portland, Ore., had adopted similar measures.

New York City’s plan had a caveat: It would cancel the ban if the Department of Sanitation determined it could recycle EPS. The department spent the next year studying the environmental and economic effectiveness of attempting to recycle the nearly 60 million lb of EPS New Yorkers throw out each year.

EPS is the fluffy white plastic used in coffee cups and protective packaging. It starts out as beads of resin impregnated with a blowing agent such as pentane. To be formed into products, the beads are expanded with heat and then molded. A related material, polystyrene foam, such as Dow Chemical’s Styrofoam insulation, is foamed directly into extruded slabs from molten resin.

More than 95% of the final material is air. Being light and full of pores makes polystyrene foam products ideal for insulation and protective packaging. The same properties irritate environmentalists.

“They’re too light and difficult to recycle economically. They are used for short periods of time and remain in nondegradable form for hundreds of years,” says Eric A. Goldstein, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “They litter our streets. They clog our drains. They are scattered in our parks. They pollute our waterways where they represent a threat to marine life.”

Indeed, recyclers must work around the problem of EPS’s light weight. For instance, they must use densifiers located near collection sites to compress the material to one-fortieth of its original size.

Still, a lot of EPS foam is recycled. According to the EPS Industry Alliance, a trade group, 127 million lb of EPS was recycled in the U.S. in 2013. The vast majority was clean protective packaging material, uncontaminated by food residue.

Food service products, which must be washed first, are a new frontier. A number of municipalities, primarily in California, have started to collect postconsumer EPS with other recyclables. “In the last five years, there have been curbside programs specifically trying to capture food service foam,” says Betsy Steiner, executive director of the EPS Industry Alliance.

Such recycling of the coffee cups and to-go containers ordinary people throw away is what New York City was contemplating. The city claims this waste represents 90% of the EPS generated there.

The effort wouldn’t have been unprecedented. In the 1980s and ’90s, the polystyrene foam industry was facing a public backlash. McDonald’s, in particular, was singled out because of the clamshells it used for its Big Macs and other sandwiches.

Two polystyrene manufacturers established Plastics Again in 1987 to deal with the problem. At its plant in Leominster, Mass., the venture took in EPS and polystyrene foam from McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants. It got around the density problem by only drawing from local sources.

“When you went farther than a 150-mile radius, you couldn’t cost-effectively bring in product,” recalls Tom Tomaszek, who ran the outfit in the 1980s. The venture also had to process material within 24 hours to prevent putrification of food residue on the foam. A lot of the recycled resin went into plastic trays used in the very same restaurant chains.

Plastics Again was later folded into National Polystyrene Recycling Co., owned by a consortium of seven polystyrene makers. NPRC’s plan was to set up recycling plants throughout the country close to the sources of waste. One opened in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint section.

By the 1990s, however, NPRC was wound down. Tomaszek notes that polystyrene recycling plants lost their biggest supplier in 1990 when McDonald’s abandoned the foam clamshell for paper. “Recycling is a lot about volume,” he says. “You need a dedicated and confirmed supply. That is one of the things that haunt all recyclers.”

Minor Player
A graphical depiction of the different components of trash.
Polystyrene represents less than 1% of the U.S. municipal solid waste stream. NOTE: Figures are for 2012. SOURCE: EPA

Dart Container wanted to prod New York City into a new large-scale effort to recycle foam. Dart is famous for its EPS coffee and cold-drink cups as well as red Solo party cups. It has an obvious financial interest in preventing more bans from coming down on its products.

Michael Westerfield, corporate director of recycling programs for Dart, looks at recycling as product stewardship. Dart is affiliated with about 85 drop-off locations around the country that send the product to its recycling plants in Mason, Mich., and Corona, Calif. “Our goal is to facilitate growth of the whole industry,” he says.

Dart made an offer it thought New York City couldn’t refuse. It volunteered to pick up the cost, which the city estimates at $2.5 million, of installing polystyrene separation at the Sunset Park facility and a plant in Jersey City, which are run by the city’s recycling contractor, Sims. For instance, optical sorting machines would have been installed to detect and separate all kinds of polystyrene—EPS as well as clear, rigid containers.

Although New Yorkers are instructed to put out all rigid plastics for recycling, Sims doesn’t currently recover rigid polystyrene like it does PET and polyethylene. Rigid polystyrene amounts to another 60 million lb of New York City’s waste stream.

Dart also had a buyer, Indianapolis-based Plastic Recycling Inc., which pledged to buy mixed bales of rigid and foam polystyrene, at a guaranteed price, for five years.

PRI is the largest U.S. polystyrene recycler, says marketing manager Brandon Shaw. At its plant in Indianapolis, the company processes 60 million lb of polystyrene annually, primarily postindustrial material but also postconsumer compact disc cases, hangers, and egg cartons. The company compounds the recycled resin with stabilizers and colorants for sale to customers. For instance, 3M makes Scotch tape dispensers out of it. An affiliate of PRI uses the resin to make the plastic spools for store receipt paper.

In partnership with Dart, PRI is completing an expansion that Shaw expects will double its capacity in Indianapolis. The new facility will be equipped with washing equipment that will allow it to process more postconsumer material. The new plant, Shaw says, could have handled all the material from New York. “The only thing they had to do was throw it in a bin,” he says.

Instead, the Sanitation Department determined late in 2014 that EPS wasn’t recyclable, allowing the city to proceed with the ban. In its report, the department pointed to what it saw as several flaws in Dart’s plan.

For instance, it said Sims would initially be able to capture only 50% of the EPS collected under the program and that PRI would have been able to clean only 25% of the EPS brought to its facility.

“These low capture rates mean that initially the majority of EPS material collected by NYC would still be landfilled,” the report said. The Sanitation Department also said it would take two years to install the equipment at Sims’s Brooklyn facility, so that recycling wouldn’t begin in earnest until late 2016 or early 2017.

The department also worried that it would be left holding the bag if the program wasn’t deemed successful in five years. And success isn’t guaranteed, it said, because although there is a large market for clean EPS, such as packaging materials, there isn’t one for mixed bales of postconsumer polystyrene and EPS.

The department pointed to the Dart facility in California, which, it said, processes only about 300,000 lb per year. The Sanitation Department added that Sims made market inquiries and found no ready buyers for material of the sort that PRI was planning to take in.

As EPS accounts for only 0.8% of curbside waste in New York City, collecting it wouldn’t create extra costs, the department acknowledged. It further estimated an annual savings of about $400,000 by diverting EPS from the landfill.

Dart’s Westerfield sees a missed opportunity. He points out that his program also would have covered EPS packaging material and the large amount of rigid polystyrene that people put out with their bottles and cans anyway. “It made a lot of sense because it wasn’t going to cost the city any money,” he says. “They could divert a lot more material and increase the recycling rate. When they chose to ban foam, they really chose to landfill foam.”

PRI’s Shaw takes issue with the Sanitation Department’s comments. He says postindustrial sources of polystyrene are being tapped out and that postconsumer resin is a next-generation source of supply. “Sales are never our issue, it is always supply,” he says. New York City’s volumes, he notes, could have helped to seed that new source of material.

Westerfield contends that Dart’s program was so strong that the Sanitation Department’s decision must have been the result of interference from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. “The only logical explanation here is that it is political,” he says. “Most people have a negative perception of foam, so it is an easy thing for them to do. There is no downside for them.”

Such an assertion is hard to prove. When the mayor announced in January that the city was moving forward with the ban, he remarked that “these products cause real environmental harm and have no place in New York City.”

Sims, which would have processed the material and is perhaps in the best position to assess the feasibility of recycling, declined C&EN’s request for comment. In a statement to C&EN, the Sanitation Department says, “The department’s determination was made, based solely on the facts before it.”

NRDC’s Goldstein, who consulted with the city on the ban and was quoted in the mayor’s announcement, doubts politics had anything to do with the Sanitation Department’s assessment. “It wasn’t like people were storming the Bastille to get rid of these cups and food containers,” he says.

Goldstein sees Dart’s offer as an attempt to protect the business it is really in: making polystyrene cups. “They had a year to demonstrate it, and there weren’t any companies other than PRI knocking down the city’s doors saying, ‘If you collect it, we’ll take it,’ ” he says. “That’s further evidence of the fact that this is a manufacturer-subsidized market and not a legitimate, competitive, multicompany market.”

Goldstein also questions whether carting railcars full of polystyrene across four states to Indiana makes environmental sense.

Similarly, Nickolas J. Themelis, director of the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University, doubts that separating polystyrene and shipping it away is really worth the effort. Left in the waste stream, polystyrene might even serve as a potent fuel for incineration in waste-to-energy plants. “It has the same heating value as gasoline,” he notes, pointing out that the city aims to eventually use waste-to-energy to dispose of nearly half of its garbage.


New York City’s decision might not be the last word. Within the recycling industry, there are whispers that Dart will take the city to court over its ban. It’s a possibility that Westerfield doesn’t dispute. “A legal challenge remains an option,” he says.  


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