Battle Over Polystyrene Waste Is Foaming in the NYC Council

The New York City Council is again confronting the controversial issue of how to get rid of polystyrene foam food and beverage containers―one of the most environmentally troublesome constituents in the municipal waste stream.   

Expanded polystyrene foam―the lightweight, brittle, white material that is used in billions of single-use coffee cups and take-out food containers every year―is a first-class environmental nuisance.

Huge volumes of these cups and clamshells end up as New York City litter. They quickly break into small pieces on city streets and in playgrounds, parks and beaches, creating clean-up woes for home-owners and Sanitation and Parks employees. And they often find their way into local rivers and bays, where their crumbling nuggets can be mistaken for food by fish and birds.

The plastics industry and the manufacturers of expanded polystyrene are aware of growing public pressure to banish these containers. So, to preserve their market share, they have come up with legislation that seeks to require city residents to “recycle” this foam.

A hearing on this industry-backed “recycling” scheme will be held this Friday, before the City Council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management.

The bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

No big city in America has successfully recycled dirty polystyrene foam. But the plastics industry is pushing foam "recycling" legislation here in NYC.

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Unfortunately, recycling of dirty polystyrene foam food and beverage containers is not practical.

After studying the issue for a year, New York City Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia concluded in 2014 that dirty polystyrene foam food and beverage containers could not be recycled in a way that would be “environmentally effective” and “economically feasible.”

An industry-funded lawsuit challenged the Commissioner’s determination and in 2015 a lower court state judge sent the issue back to the Sanitation Department for further analysis.  

Meanwhile, in 2016, former NYC Sanitation Commissioner Brendan Sexton, conducted his own study as to whether dirty polystyrene foam food and beverage containers could be successfully recycled, as industry claimed. Like Commissioner Garcia, Sexton concluded that the answer was “no.”  

“We have concluded that the concept of recycling dirty plastic foam from the residential or food-contact waste stream is simply not a reality in the NYC area, or in the eastern US at all,” Sexton reported.

Who wants this? There is no legitimate market for dirty polystyrene foam. To reduce litter and pollution, the answer is a ban.

Why have Commissioner Garcia and former Commissioner Sexton both determined that recycling of polystyrene foam food and beverage container is not feasible for New York City? 

One reason is that no true market exists for this dirty foam material. There are simply not manufacturers who are seeking to purchase or even accept this material for recycling anywhere in the New York region.

In addition, these food and beverage containers are mostly purchased by consumers from restaurants, take-out food establishments and food carts. That means that they bulk of these dirty containers end up mixed in with other trash in corner waste baskets or left behind as street litter.

For these and other reasons, not a single one of the 30 largest cities in the United States is implementing a successful residential recycling program for dirty polystyrene foam. Not one!

But over 100 communities around the nation have moved instead to ban the use of polystyrene foam food and beverage containers in their jurisdictions. They include San Francisco, Seattle, Washington D.C. and even Albany County (NY) (where the ban applies to chain stores).  

Where such bans have been implemented, food service establishments have made the conversion to more environmentally friendly containers without significant disruption. As a result, streets are cleaner. Litter clean-up burdens are eased. And parks and waterways are less polluted.

Fortunately, environmental champions in the City Council are now preparing legislation that would add New York City to the list of forward-looking municipalities that have prohibited the use of these environmentally troublesome food and beverage containers here.

But the polystyrene industry won’t go down without a fight. Indeed, the plastics manufacturers are shoveling out big dollars to influence the outcome of the debate.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has been a long-term friend of the city’s environment. 

This is her last year as Speaker and time to think about her environmental legacy.

We hope the Speaker decides to lead the Council in rejecting the industry-backed foam “recycling” scheme, and instead supports progressive legislation that will jump-start the phase out polystyrene foam containers and their replacement with more environmentally friendly substitutes. 

About the Authors

Eric A. Goldstein

Senior Attorney and New York City Environment Director

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