Sustainable NYC Living: Foam Packaging Ban

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Earlier this summer, New York joined a growing list of cities, such as San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, DC, and Portland (Portland, Oregon and Portland, Maine), in banning Expanded Polystyrene foam (EPS). As of July 1, the packaging material commonly used for takeout containers and coffee cups, as well as packing peanuts, can no longer be used in the city (with some exceptions for wholesalers and butchers). 

Marketed under the name Styrofoam when it was invented by Dow Chemical in 1941, EPS is produced by steaming tiny plastic beads with chemicals until they expand to 50 times their original size. After cooling, they are placed in molds (such as those for coffee cups) and steamed again until the beads entirely fuse together. While light and cheap to make, the material is notorious for not biodegrading easily and for being a hazard to marine life. Containers that break down into small pieces are mistaken for food by aquatic wildlife.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the ban in January and said that, “These products cause real environmental harm and have no place in New York City. We have better options, better alternatives, and if more cities across the country follow our lead and institute similar bans, those alternatives will soon become more plentiful and will cost less.”

The decision came after more than a year of debate following Local Law 142, passed in December 2013, that required the city’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) to examine whether EPS could be effectively recycled. Under the law, if EPS was not found to be recyclable, it had to be banned. DSNY determined that it would not collect the material with curbside recycling, so the ban was placed into effect.

Environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club, and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), are all in support of the new law. However, the ban is not without its detractors. Following DeBlasio’s January announcement, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) issued its own statement questioning the logic of the decision, claiming that there is a demand for recycled foam packaging, and that a US foam food-service packaging manufacturer even offered to help the city expand its recycling program to include the foam. NYC Sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia argued that it hasn’t been proven that dirty foam can be recycled on a large scale and there is no market for this material.  

While there is research being done to see if the material can be inexpensively collapsed to reform beads, so far there aren’t many practical ways to recycle it. Thermal recycling is a measure that is currently being tested in which used EPS is burned in municipal incinerators, leaving behind carbon dioxide and water vapors, which could be good fuel for waste-to-energy programs that use heat. However, its viability is offset by the cost of transporting bulky polystyrene to recycling centers.

As for the ban, businesses are being given a grace period to ease into the restrictions. Fines for using the material will be imposed beginning Jan. 1, 2016. Until then, businesses will just be issued warnings. Also, nonprofit organizations and small businesses that make less than $500,000 a year can apply for exemptions.

The city’s Department of Education already started serving lunches on compostable plates, and next month all 830,000 foam lunch trays that were used every day will be replaced. Several corporations have also already introduced more environmentally-friendly alternatives. Dunkin’ Donuts in New York City now use earth-friendly polypropylene cups.

According to a recent EPA report, Americans generate 251 million tons of waste a year, and 30 percent of that comes from packaging. Think about it: that foam coffee cup you used this morning will be still be sitting in a landfill 500 years from now. Any attempt to encourage green packaging is a good step in reducing waste and protecting our environment.

Check out the following two videos via nyc.gov that take a look at two NYC businesses that use sustainable packaging:

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