New York City is joining a growing group of cities in banning Expandable Polystyrene Foam (EPS). For the second time in less than three years, New York City is instituting a ban on single-use Styrofoam containers.
The first ban on polystyrene took effect in July, 2015, but was challenged by a coalition recycling firms and plastics manufacturers. They sued the city arguing that the material is recyclable.
Starting November 13 2017, with a sixth month warning period before fines would be issued, food service establishments, mobile food trucks, stores that sells mostly fresh food cannot pack in foam containers.
After March 13, 2018, single-use (EPS) products including cups, bowls, plates, takeout containers and trays and packing peanuts are not allowed to be possessed, sold, or offered in New York City. Companies have six months to comply or face a fine. “These products cause real environmental harm and have no place in New York City. We have better options,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in a release about the ban.
What is Styrofoam anyway?
Polystyrene foam packaging has been a topic of environmental debate for decades, and several international brands have made moves to phase it out. This slow trend may have been accelerated recently when National Research Council (NRC) affirmed the National Toxicology Program’s 2011 finding that the organic compound styrene can “reasonably be anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
To make Styrofoam, small beads of the polymer polystyrene are steamed with chemicals until they expanded to 50 times their original volume. After cooling and settling, the pre-expanded beads are then blown into a mold – such as that of a drink cup or cooler – and steamed again, expanding further, until the mold is completely filled and all of the beads have fused together.
What makes Styrofoam so bad for the environment?
But environmentalists say that EPS waste causes outsized trouble when it leaks into marine environments and contaminates water.
Expanded polystyrene foam—commonly known as “Styrofoam”—is basically polystyrene that’s expanded with air. Americans use more than 25 billion “Styrofoam” cups each year. But there are other polystyrene products that go undercover in our everyday life, such as coffee cup lids, drinking straws, cutlery and cups (even Red Solo Cups). You can identify these plastics by the number “6” on the bottom.
Why Companies cannot recycle Styrofoam profitably
The difficulty recycling EPS was a main reason New York City enacted the ban.
Kathryn Garcia, New York City’s sanitation commissioner, said: “It has not been proven that recycling dirty foam can be done on a large scale, and there is no demonstrated market for this material.”
Due to the chemical process that turns polystyrene beads into EPS, it’s nearly impossible to turn an EPS plate, for example, into an EPS takeaway box.
“You couldn’t just take recycled Styrofoam cups and make molds again because it’s already expanded,” says Joe Biernacki, professor of chemical engineering at Tennessee Tech University. “What you need are virgin polystyrene beads.”
There is research being done to see if EPS can be re-engineered inexpensively to form beads again – but so far there a few practical ways to recycle.
One method that has been tested is thermal recycling. In this process, the recycled EPS is burned in municipal incinerators, leaving behind carbon dioxide and water vapors. This makes it a good fuel for waste-to-energy programs that use heat.
While thermal recycling could be an effective re-use of polystyrene waste, its viability is offset by the cost of transporting loads of light, bulky polystyrene to recycling centers.
What are the alternatives?
McDonalds stopped using EPS in its cartons starting in the 1990s, and announced plans to phase it out for coffee cups in 2013, relying on paper-based alternatives. Dunkin’ Donuts new coffee cup is made of a more recyclable compound – polypropylene.
Polypropylene is a resin-based substance that is often used for plastic takeaway containers. While polypropylene is more easily recycled than polystyrene, it is also more expensive.
Astrid Portillo, the owner of Mi Pequeno El Salvador restaurant in Queens, told the New York Daily News: “I must raise the prices on my menu and that’s going to be tough.”
But Mr. de Blasio hopes his actions could change that. “If more cities across the country follow our lead and institute similar bans, those alternatives will soon become more plentiful and will cost less,” he said in his statement.