In a controversial move, New York City has banned foam foodservice products on the grounds that they cannot be efficiently recycled through a curbside collection system.
“After consultations with corporations, including Dart Container Corporation, nonprofits, vendors and other stakeholders, the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) has determined that expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam cannot be recycled, which led to the ban,” the city announced in a Dec. 8 press release. “DSNY has also determined that there currently is no market for post-consumer EPS collected in a curbside metal, glass and plastic recycling program.”
It is widely known that post-consumer EPS can be recycled for use in picture frames and a variety of other products, and most communities that offer EPS collection do so through a drop-off format. While ban opponent Dart Container had secured an Indianapolis-based buyer for the New York City material, DSNY internal documents show the agency was not convinced of the long-term viability of an alternative plan to collect all polystyrene items curbside.
The ban was framed as an environmental victory by the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, who had first proposed to outlaw select foam products in 2007 when he was a member of City Council.
“By removing nearly 30,000 tons of expanded polystyrene waste from our landfills, streets, and waterways, today’s announcement is a major step towards our goal of a greener, greater New York City,” de Blasio said in a statement.
Starting July 1, establishments throughout New York City will no longer be able to offer or sell foam food service products, such as cups and clamshell takeout trays. Foam packing peanuts will also be banned and compostable plates will be the new norm at the city’s public school cafeterias. All other rigid polystyrene products will continue to be landfilled.
The decision was challenged by foam manufacturer Dart, which lobbied hard against the ban and pushed for the addition of all PS to the city’s curbside recycling program.
“In the year since the ban was first proposed, foam manufacturers like Dart were given an opportunity to prove that foam foodservice items could be economically and logistically recycled within the city’s five boroughs,” a press release reads. “Dart conducted real world tests that unequivocally proved this feasibility.”
As the Dart release notes, the foam ban was approved by City Council members in late 2013, but included a compromise that gave Dart and others a year to prove recycling foam curbside could be effective within the city. The DSNY had until Jan. 1 to make a decision on whether to push through the ban or go with Dart’s alternative proposal.
The decision to ban foam, as outlined in a letter to de Blasio from DSNY Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, came down to several reservations administrators had Dart’s proposed recycling plan and timeline for recycling curbside PS and EPS.
The city estimates roughly 60,000 tons of polystyrene products enter the waste stream each year, with about half that total constituting EPS.
Under Dart’s plan, all PS and EPS would have been collected curbside by DSNY, optically sorted and baled by Sims Municipal Recycling and sold to Plastics Recycling Inc. (PRI) in Indianapolis. Dart agreed to fund the addition of sorters at Sims’ Brooklyn MRF and the expansion of PRI’s facility. In addition, Dart secured a five-year pact with PRI to guarantee a buyer for New York City’s post-consumer PS, including foam foodservice packaging.
But Garcia’s letter shows city leaders felt putting such an infrastructure in place would take too much time. DSNY contends the addition of sorters at Sims’ facility would take up to two years to complete. “As such, EPS would not be recycled until late 2016 or early 2017,” Garcia’s letter states.
In addition, PRI’s necessary expansion to take on the material is not expected to be completed until “late spring 2015,” DSNY says. According to the letter, question marks continue to surround the company’s ability to process post-consumer PS and EPS.
Calling the PRI addition “a first of its kind in scale and operation,” DSNY concluded the company might not be able to actually find buyers for the material once it is sorted and ready for reuse in new products. Without buyers, the material would have to be landfilled.
And, Garcia warns, if PRI were to decide after five years to ditch the endeavor, DSNY and Sims “would still have to manage the costs and complications of having designated EPS as recyclable.”