New York City Bans Not Recyclable Single-Use Styrofoam Products

Following New York Citys Department of Sanitation's determination that expanded polystyrene foam is not recyclable, single use products such as food packaging will be banned in New York City.  

In a controversial move, New York City’s Department of Sanitation has determined that expanded polystyrene foam is ‘not recyclable’ and food service establishments, stores and manufacturers may not possess, sell, or offer for use single service Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) foam articles or polystyrene loose fill packaging, such as ‘packing peanuts’ in New York City. 

The de Blasio Administration explained that the decision follows a consultation with corporations, including Dart Container Corporation, non-profits, vendors and other stakeholders, the Department of Sanitation (DSNY), has determined that Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) Foam cannot be recycled, which led to the ban.

DSNY also determined that there currently is no market for post-consumer EPS collected in a kerbside metal, glass, and plastic recycling program. As a result of the ban, manufacturers and stores may not sell or offer single-use foam items such as cups, plates, trays, or clamshell containers in the City. The sale of polystyrene loose fill packaging, such as ‘packing peanuts’ is also banned.

According to the Office of the Mayor, the determination was made after considering environmental effectiveness, economic feasibility, and safety for employees of DSNY and Sims Municipal Recycling, the City's recycling processor.

The analysis was said to be based on a recycling strategy that would have incorporated EPS into the current metal, glass, plastic & carton commingled collection program and that would not create a separate collection or sorting program.

Local Law 142, passed by the City Council in December 2013, required the sanitation commissioner to determine “whether EPS single service articles can be recycled at the designated recycling processing facility at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in a manner that is environmentally effective, economically feasible, and safe for employees.”

The Office of the Mayor noted that under Local Law 142 if EPS is not found to be recyclable, it must be banned.

However, the law allows businesses a six month grace period from when it comes into effect – January 1, 2016 – before fines can be imposed. 

DSNY, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Department of Consumer Affairs will conduct outreach and education in multiple languages to businesses throughout all five boroughs during this period. For the first year of the ban, businesses will be given a warning in lieu of a fine.

Non-profits and small businesses with less than $500,000 in revenue per year may apply for hardship exemptions from the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) if they can prove that the purchase of alternative products not composed of EPS would create undue financial hardship. SBS will begin accepting applications for hardship waivers in March 2015.

In accordance with the City’s new policy, DOE will begin replacing foam trays with compostable plates on May 1st. All school meals will be served on these compostable plates starting in September. All summer meals will also be served on compostable plates.

Real environmental harm

According to Mayor Bill de Blasio EPS 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,” said the Mayor.

“By removing nearly 30,000 tons (27,200 tonnes) 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,” he continued.

Sanitation Commissioner, Kathryn Garcia added: “While much of the waste we produce can be recycled or reused, polystyrene foam is not one of those materials. Removing polystyrene from our waste stream is not only good for a greener, more sustainable New York, but also for the communities who are home to landfills receiving the City’s trash.”

Director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Nilda Mesa commented: “NYC is now the largest city in the country to ban EPS foam, and we hope this will inspire others to do the same. This ban will improve our rivers and waterfront and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean with its rich fisheries and marine life.”

“The ban on EPS foam products marks another step forward as we work toward an even greener, more sustainable NYC -- from cleaner air and dramatically reduced emissions, to now ending the sale and use of non-biodegradable products like EPS foam,” she added.

Warm welcome

While the ban has not proved universally popular, particularly with manufacturers of EPS, a number of high profile figures gave the move their backing.

"We must move decisively away from the era in which scarce resources are extracted from the earth, turned into products that may be used for no more than a few minutes, and then trashed without reusing or recycling the materials - and ubiquitous polystyrene foam is one of the prime example of this wasteful practice," commented assembly member Brian Kavanagh, who chairs the NYS Caucus of Environmental Legislators and has sponsored legislation to restrict EPS use for food service state wide.

Council member Donovan Richards, chair to the Committee on Environmental Protection added: “For too long polystyrene foam has been mischaracterised as a safe, and economically sound choice for packaging when it is in fact a great threat to the city's ecosystem and our commitment to environmental sustainability.”

Antonio Reynoso, council member, and chair of Sanitation Committee added: “I firmly believe and have made every effort to ensure that the Department of Sanitation recycles or reuses as many materials as possible. However, I support the Administration’s determination that polystyrene foam cannot be recycled.”

Chris Hickey, regional director NYC of the New York State Restaurant Association commented: “The New York State Restaurant Association appreciates the efforts of the NYC Department of Sanitation and the Mayor's Office to enact legislation that moves our industry toward sustainability while recognising the needs of small businesses via a long transition period and a commitment to educate businesses on alternatives before fining them.”

Peter H Kostmayer, CEO Citizens Committee for New York City said: “This is an important victory for New Yorkers committed to reducing global warming, to reducing the volume of trash we generate,  and to reducing the taxes we all pay to collect, transport and dispose of our trash.”

Eric A. Goldstein, New York City environment director at the Natural Resources Defense Council added: “Restaurant owners and food vendors here will transition to more environmentally friendly food and beverage containers, just as they have in more than 100 jurisdictions around the country where similar bans have already been adopted.”

Brendan Sexton, chair of the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board said: “Getting rid of Styrofoam is just terrific news for recyclers, for composters, for taxpayers, and for all living beings that depend on having a healthy ocean—that is to say, all of us.”

Christine Datz-Romero, executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center added: “Styrofoam products contribute an estimated 20,000 tons of waste to our waste stream, in NYC schools alone over 830,000 foam lunch trays are used every day. In the school setting, this ban is a perfect opportunity to implement a shift away from single use to durable items, eliminating wastefulness and teaching an important lesson to the next generation.”

Missed opportunity

There were of course those not so enthralled with the ban, with the American Chemistry Council calling the move a “missed opportunity.

Following the announcement of the ban, Mike Levy, senior director for the American Chemistry Council's Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group made the following statement:

"We are puzzled by the City's decision to continue sending alternative foodservice and foam packaging to landfills instead of saving money by recycling foam at kerbside. New York City could have surpassed Los Angeles as the largest city to recycle foam packaging at kerbside, building on the experience of existing kerbside recycling programs in other cities.

"Burying recyclable materials in landfills is not a sustainable solution for the environment or city residents.

"Based on New York City's decision, residents will not be able to recycle any foam packaging – meat trays, egg cartons, protective packaging, foam cups – at kerbside, and the use of foam foodservice packaging will be restricted. This will neither increase recycling nor reduce litter.

"The decision by New York City illogically ignores an offer to recycle these materials at no cost to the city. Worse, it forces the use of other materials that will be sent to landfills, because food-contaminated paper or cardboard and paper take-out containers 'with heavy wax or plastic coatings' are not accepted for recycling in the city. These alternative foodservice packaging materials should be held to the same standard as foam packaging.  

"There's a commercial demand for recycled foam packaging, including foodservice items – nearly 140 companies process or use the plastic material in the U.S. and Canada. A U.S. maker of foam foodservice packaging even offered to help the city expand its recycling program to include foam packaging, including foodservice and protective packaging, in part by providing a guaranteed market for the material that would save money for the city. Instead, the city will continue to spend money to collect and send this material to landfills, rather than explore a potential revenue stream.

"The restrictions on foam foodservice packaging also will harm the area economy. In New York State alone, four foam foodservice packaging companies with nine facilities employ 1,563 people and contribute $47.5 million in payroll and pay $2.3 million in state taxes. These companies make packaging used by government agencies, restaurants, grocers, schools, hospitals, and food establishments in the state and the metro area. Alternatives to foam foodservice packaging typically are between two and five times more expensive.

"We encourage the City to reconsider this decision and pursue readily available opportunities to recycle foam packaging."

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