NYC Can't Recycle Polystyrene Foam Food Containers; Ban is Only Sensible Solution

No reliable economic market exists for recycling New York City’s environmentally problematic polystyrene foam (commonly referred to by the brand name “Styrofoam”) food and beverage containers, according to a new analysis prepared by independent consultants for Natural Resources Defense Council.

The study comes ahead of a decision by the administration of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, expected before January 1, on whether or not to prohibit restaurants, coffee shops, cafes, and vending trucks from providing the difficult-to-dispose of containers to their customers.

Specifically, the study -- prepared by DSM Environmental Services, a Vermont-based consulting firm with an extensive background in municipal waste issues -- concludes that there are many uncertainties regarding the economic feasibility of recycling soiled polystyrene foam food and beverage containers and that the current market for such containers remains “speculative” and “untested.”

These findings show that recycling is not now a viable option for New York City.  Thus, the only environmentally and economically responsible decision is to prohibit future use of these containers and switch to more sustainable alternatives, as was envisioned by the New York City Council in 2013.

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By January 1, Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia is to decide whether to prohibit the use of polystyrene food and beverage containers in New York City.  A new study finds that there does not currently exist a reliable market for recycling these soiled containers, providing additional support for phasing them out, as has occurred in scores of cities and towns around the country.

Under the 2013 law, the city’s Sanitation Commissioner is required to decide by January 1, 2015, whether or not to prohibit the use of such polystyrene containers.  If she decides not to prohibit the use of these containers, the Commissioner must find, among other things, that recycling of soiled polystyrene food and beverage containers is “economically feasible” at the city’s SIMS recycling facility in Brooklyn.

The new DSM study adds to accumulating evidence that it is not now economically feasible to recycle soiled polystyrene food and beverage containers here.

San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and other cities and towns around the nation have already banned the use of such containers. Their decisions came after concluding that these containers disproportionately contribute to street litter and waterway pollution, and that recycling food-encrusted containers and coffee-stained cups is not economically viable due to polystyrene foam’s light weight and low market value.

In 2013, the city of San Jose, CA, became one the latest big cities to prohibit polystyrene foam food and beverage containers.  Officials there explored the possibility of recycling these materials and concluded: there are “no effective and efficient ways to recycle” them, and that this “is due to the low market value of the material and the high rate of food contamination, which makes it impossible to recycle.”

And just last month, a ban on the containers took effect at chain restaurants in Albany County.

Meanwhile, major national companies like McDonald’s got rid of polystyrene clamshell containers nationwide more than two decades ago.  And many restaurants and other food establishments in New York City (and beyond) have already switched to food containers and coffee cups made from less problematic materials.

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Many restaurants in New York City, like Chipotle Mexican Grill pictured here, have already dropped environmentally troublesome polystyrene foam clamshells and beverage cups and have substituted containers that are much easier to recycle or compost.

One Indianapolis-based company, PRI, has been working with DART Container Corp, the nation’s largest manufacturer of polystyrene cups and food containers, to expand its recycling capabilities.  But according to the DSM researchers, “past history has not been kind to these types of subsidized [polystyrene foam] recycling programs.”

Similarly, the DSM consultants -- who visited the SIMS recycling facility in Brooklyn, toured the DART/PRI styrene reclamation facility in Indianapolis and investigated other potential markets for these polystyrene containers – were unable to conclude that it is economically feasible to recycle polystyrene foam in New York City at the present time.  Therefore, say the consultants, if the city were to conclude otherwise, based on the promises of PRI and DART, but without any other facilities in the United States willing to accept soiled polystyrene food and beverage containers at the needed scale, “New York City would be entering into a very large pilot program based on a single market, and unproven systems technology.”

Mayor de Blasio has long recognized that polystyrene food containers are “harmful to our environment and creating massive amounts of waste.”  As a New York City Councilman in 2007, he joined with parents in efforts to prohibit over 850,000 polystyrene food trays, used in the city’s public schools, from entering the city’s trash stream every day. 

Here’s hoping the new DSM study is the last piece of evidence the Mayor and Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia need to make the necessary legal determination that will rid New York City of these litter-generating, waterway polluting, recycling-unfriendly containers.

About the Authors

Eric A. Goldstein

Senior Attorney and New York City Environment Director

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