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Big Apple Bans Foam Containers

Regulation: Chemical industry fought for recycling of polystyrene instead

by Cheryl Hogue
January 15, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 3

Credit: Richard B. Levine/Newscom
An overflowing trash can, filled mostly with styrofoam packaging, is seen in this photo of Diversity Plaza in the Queens, Jackson Heights neighborhood of New York on Saturday, November 22, 2014.
Credit: Richard B. Levine/Newscom

The market for alternatives to expanded polystyrene food and beverage containers got a significant boost last week when New York City finalized its ban on these materials, despite heavy lobbying by the chemical industry.

The city’s Department of Sanitation announced Friday its determination that single-use expanded polystyrene containers cannot be recycled economically. It also found that no market exists now for postconsumer polystyrene foam collected in curbside recycling. “While much of the waste we produce can be recycled or reused, polystyrene foam is not one of those materials,” Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia says.

Under a law that the city adopted at the end of 2013, that determination triggers the ban. Food establishments, stores, and manufacturers in New York City may not possess, sell, or offer to customers plastic foam containers as of July 1 and thus will be seeking alternative materials. In addition, the city will also prohibit the sale of loose-fill polystyrene—commonly called packing peanuts.

Chemical manufacturers and foam food and beverage container makers had fought the ban, arguing that expanded polystyrene can indeed be recycled.

“We are puzzled by the city’s decision to continue sending alternative food service and foam packaging to landfills instead of saving money by recycling foam at curbside,” says Mike Levy, senior director for the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group of the American Chemistry Council, a trade group of chemical makers. “Food-contaminated paper or cardboard and paper takeout containers with heavy wax or plastic coatings are not accepted for recycling in the city,” he points out.

“There’s a commercial demand for recycled foam packaging, including food service items,” Levy says. “Nearly 140 companies process or use the plastic material in the U.S. and Canada.”

The city’s Department of Sanitation says it collected about 28,500 tons of expanded polystyrene in 2014 and estimates that approximately 90% of this amount consisted of single-use cups, trays, and containers.

New York joins a number of West Coast cities, including Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, as well as Washington, D.C., in banning polystyrene food containers.



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