Polystyrene Waste Banned!

ecofashion_weekend_02_thumb1 New York City is moving to the forefront of a growing   environmental trend!!  Last year,  Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an ambitious plan to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 from its 2005 levels.   This year e-waste is illegal to throw in the garbage.  And Now!  Stores, food service establishments and manufacturers won’t be able to possess, sell or offer single-use styrofoam containers, cups, even packing peanuts beginning July 1 with a grace period until January 2016 for companies and administrators to work out the realities.

The reason is purely environmental.  Expanded Polystyrene Foam (EPS) cannot be efficiently recycled through NYC’s curbside pickup program.  “These products cause real environmental harm and have no place in our city.  We have better alternatives.  If more cities across the country follow our lead and institute similar bans, those alternatives will soon become more plentiful and cost less.  By removing nearly 30,000 tons of expanded polystyrene waste from our landfills, streets and waterways, we will be taking a major step towards our goal of a greener, greater New York City,”  the mayor said.

Styrofoam (the trademark name given to EPS by Dow Chemical) containers are popular in restaurants that offer a takeout option and hundreds of food carts and trucks that populate New York’s streets.  Such vendors will have to seek out recyclable alternatives, though businesses with less than $500,000 in annual revenue can apply for exemptions if using alternative containers would cause “undue financial hardship.”  Compostable plates will be the new norm at the city’s public school cafeterias.  Packing peanuts cannot be sold within the city, but peanuts can still be placed in packages that are shipped into New York.  All other rigid polystyrene products will continue to be landfilled.  CD cases, single serve containers and some decorative items. Unknown-1

Though New York is the largest city to ban this type of “dirty foam,” other cities including San Francisco, Seattle and Portland have enacted similar measures.

In the year since the ban was first proposed, EPS manufacturers like Dart Container Corporation were given an opportunity to prove that foam foodservice items could be economically and logistically recycled within the city’s five boroughs.  Dart representatives stated,  “We conducted real world tests that unequivocally proved this feasibility.”  After consulting with corporations, nonprofits, vendors and other stakeholders,  the Department of Sanitation determined that expanded polystyrene foam cannot be recycled efficiently through its curbside pick up program.  Post-consumer EPS can be recycled but most communities that offer EPS collection do so through a drop-off format.  The largest opponent of the ban, Dart Container,  partnered with Plastics Recycling, Inc. (PRI), to buy all New York City rigid and expanded foam polystyrene if DSNY agreed to collect it and optically sort/bale it by Sims Municipal Recycling.  Dart agreed to fund the addition of sorters at Sims’ Brooklyn plant and the expansion of PRI’s facility.

The decision to ban came down to several reservations that administrators had regarding Dart’s proposed recycling plan and timeline.  City leaders felt putting such an infrastructure in place would take too much time.  DSNY contends the addition of sorters at the Brooklyn Sims’ facility would take up to two years and PRI’s expansion would take until late spring 2015.

Question marks continue to surround the company’s ability to process post-consumer polystyrene because grease contamination renders polystyrene non-recyclable.  Its volume alone makes it uneconomical to store, transport, degrease and wash it before recycling.  And, Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia warns, if PRI decided after five years to ditch the endeavor, DSNY and Sims “would still have to manage the costs and complications of designating EPS as recyclable.”

According to Brandon Shaw, PRI’s marketing manager,  “Post-consumer foam is a growing market, there’s more demand for it than there ever.”  He told Plastics Recycling Update,  “People are just told it can’t be recycled and they believe it, but we do it every day.  The new plant just allows us to do it more efficiently and on a larger scale”   PRI claims that they already recycle 60 million pounds of polystyrene per year.  A third of that total is post-consumer BUT mostly garnered from drop-off sites.

The Restaurant Action Alliance, a lobbying group, also condemned the ban, suggesting that it would increase costs for eateries.

“While much of the waste we produce can be recycled or reused, polystyrene foam is not one of those materials,” said Commissioner Garcia. “Removing polystyrene from our waste stream is not only good for a greener, more sustainable New York, it also helps the landfill communities who receive the city’s trash.”  Environmental groups have long decried polystyrene as a hazard that clogs the nation’s landfills.

Polystyrene is a petroleum-based plastic made from the styrene monomer.  It is a light-weight material, about 95% air, with very good insulation properties and is used in many types of products.

The biggest environmental health concern associated with polystyrene is the danger associated with Styrene, its basic building block.  Styrene is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA and by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

The polystyrene manufacturing process is the 5th largest creator of hazardous waste according to the EPA and The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of polystyrene foam.  The process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste.

Toxic chemicals leach out of these products into the food that they contain (especially when heated in a microwave) that threaten human health and reproductive systems.

These products are made with petroleum, a non-sustainable, rapidly depleting, and heavily polluting resource.

Some polystyrene foam manufacturing releases hydrocarbons into the air where they combine with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight, to form tropospheric ozone, a serious air pollutant.  Though polystyrene manufacturers claim that their products are “ozone-friendly” or free of CFCs, this is only partially true.  EPS manufactured with HCFC-22, was originally thought to be less destructive than its chemical cousins, CFC-11 and CFC-12, but according to an Institute for Energy and Environmental Research study, HCFCs are three to five times more destructive to the ozone layer than previously believed.

By volume, polystyrene takes up more space in landfills than paper, and will eventually re-enter the environment when water or mechanical forces breach landfills.

Polystyrene foam is often found in our environment as litter.  This material is notorious for breaking up into pieces that choke animals and clog their digestive systems.

While the technology for recycling polystyrene is available but the market is small.

Production of environmentally friendly packaging material has stepped up to replace those peanuts.  Corn and other seeds lead the way.  Some are already available as replacements.  Perhaps the problematic recycling situation will be solved by replacing the product.

Polystyrene recycling is not “closed loop”.  Collected polystyrene cups are not remanufactured into cups, but into other products, such as packing filler and cafeteria trays.  This means that more resources will have to be used, and more pollution created, to produce more polystyrene cups

How You Can Help:

  • Select post-consumer recycled paper, bamboo, corn plastics, etc.  They’re renewable resources.
  • Become aware when your favorite “take out” services use polystyrene.  Let them know you can afford a few cents more for recyclable containers.
  • Take shipping peanuts to your neighborhood Shipping Store.  They love them.
  • Paper does the job of keeping your coffee hot just fine.  Or use a refillable container that gives you great satisfaction and delivers your coffee just the way you like it.
  • Egg cartons have been made of paper for a very long time.  Refuse to buy eggs in styrofoam cartons.
  • Fruits and vegetables really don’t need individual protection with styrofoam.  Buy fresh and get healthy.
  • Never microwave food in a styrofoam container.
  • Styrofoam is essentially not recyclable.  It creates such huge volume that it is formidable to handle, clean or transport.  It doesn’t take THAT much styrofoam to fill a semi-truck or a landfill!

Until next week,piled-waste-plastics-1212Garbage Girl

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