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New York City recently passed a law that will ban polystyrene food containers beginning 2015. With Chicago and other cities contemplating similar laws, it makes one question why these cities aren’t recycling the foam instead.

Many recyclers across the country are taking plastic foam and recycling it into new products. And a number of cities, including Los Angeles, are collecting plastic foam from curbsides as part of their recycling effort.

Some recycling advocates say that the trend toward bans is more political than practical. Despite the practical advantages of recycling polystyrene, some elected officials see an advantage in taking a stand against a material that has a negative image from an environmental standpoint.

Another explanation is that polystyrene suffers from a widespread misconception that it is not recyclable. However, in fact, the material can be recycled and the process is easier today thanks to improvements in equipment for washing, densifying and otherwise handling it.

Generally, the problem seems to involve ban proponents who have influence, while recycling proponents don’t, and lack of knowledge about recycling makes it hard for decision makers to vote for recycling. “You have activists saying foam is filling up landfills,” said Michael Westerfield, corporate director of recycling programs for expanded polystyrene product maker Dart Container Corporation in Mason, Michigan. “And you have elected officials who aren’t experts on it, so it makes sense to them to ban it.”

Recyclers, however, know better. Al Valkema, national sales director for Sebright Products in Hopkins, Michigan, a maker of a line of compactors including densifiers suitable for expanded polystyrene foam, said his company recycles three million pounds of foam annually. “I wouldn’t be a fan of a ban,” Valkema said.

In New York, however, polystyrene foam food containers will be banned starting in 2015 unless recycling proponents can successfully demonstrate that the materials can be recycled. The problem is not so much that foam food containers are inherently hard to recycle, or even that they are contaminated with food. One obstacle is getting enough of the light, bulky containers in one place to make processing or transporting them worthwile, according to Westerfield.

“The biggest challenge that we face is probably the lack of critical mass at certain facilities,” Westerfield said. MRFs generally sell materials in single lots of 40,000 lbs. Because foamed plastic is light, especially compared to volume, it can take a long time to accumulate enough material to move it. And foam stored outside and exposed to the elements may be so damaged or degraded by the time a full load has been collected that it cannot be recycled.

The critical mass problem is one reason why it’s been difficult to replicate at the consumer level the success of recycling polystyrene that has been seen at hospitals, universities and other single-point large generators of polystyrene containers. However, when enough polystyrene of the proper sort is collected it can be recycled.
Dan Helfenbein, president of Recycling Solutions in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, said 30 percent of his total material volume comes from polystyrene foam collected from industries where it is used mostly for packing. Markets for the recycled materials are good, Helfenbein said. “It goes in the toy market, the sporting goods market and they use it for picture frames.”

Helfenbein doesn’t take any coffee cups, clamshell takeout containers or other foodservice, however. So he expects even if nearby Chicago does ban polystyrene food containers, it would have only a small impact on his supply.

Westerfield said educating people about the prospects for recycling polystyrene is one of the key challenges facing recycling proponents. Foam, he says, is generally superior to the major foodservice alternative, paper, when it comes to energy consumption, air emissions, water emissions and other environmental concerns. However, he said, the general belief is the opposite, that paper is far preferable to foam. “Most people’s perception of foam is not positive,” he said. “We have to do a better job of explaining the realities of it.”

When more decision makers are aware of the practical advantages, curbside post-consumer recycling of foodservice and other foam can succeed. Westerfield noted that in 2007 a single community in California recycled foam. Now, he says, 65 do so. “Most people are told from a very young age that foam is not recyclable,” he said. “We know that’s not true.”

One way to introduce food service foam recycling is for large generators such as school districts to implement it. Because they produce large amounts of food service foam at a single location, it’s more practical for them than for curbside collection recycling programs. And many school districts do just that, and have found that recycling foam lunch trays greatly reduces the amount of waste they are sending to landfills. However, according to Dart, most of those districts are in California and Michigan. Lack of local examples may be why New York and Chicago are turning to bans instead of recycling.

Bans aren’t on the agenda in most places, however, despite the fact that little food service foam recycling occurs in most places. Scott Flagg, an environmental specialist senior with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said he isn’t aware of any bans in his state, but he’s also not aware of much recycling going on. Most residential collection of foam is in smaller cities, he said. “The major metro areas haven’t added that to their curbside collection,” Flagg said.

One reason for lack of interest in recycling foam may be that recyclers need to buy additional equipment, such as densifiers, to prepare it for processing or transport. “You can’t transport a trailer of 90 percent air,” Flagg said. “They’re going to have to invest in that second step at the MRF to make it economical.”

When foam isn’t recycled, it goes to the landfill. Like most materials in a landfill, it will take up space indefinitely. Foam may not be adding to undesirable leachate, Flagg said, but anything that takes up landfill space is attracting attention. Right now, there is no ban proposed and they are eager to work with businesses that are interested in finding ways to recycle it. “We’re always looking for opportunities for additional recycling,” he said.

Lawmakers in New York and elsewhere are not as interested in recycling foam because banning it makes more political sense, said Betsy Steiner, executive director of the EPS Industry Alliance, an industry information and advocacy group in Crofton, Maryland. “For a legislator to get up and say that they are doing something to save the environment gets them votes. Whether it actually benefits the environment or not is unimportant,” added Steiner.

Since polystyrene foam makes up just one percent of the material entering landfills, she noted, banning it isn’t likely to make much difference to the rate landfills are consumed. “We really think they can’t justify these bans for a lot of different reasons.” Steiner said. “They’re not reducing solid waste. So what are they accomplishing?”
With its reputation as an environmental negative, combined with the widespread ignorance about its potential for recycling, a polystyrene foam ban can seem like an accomplishment. But that’s not how recycling advocates see it. “It’s a perception issue,” Steiner said.

In New York, recycling advocates have one year to turn that perception around by showing they can successfully recycle the city’s food service foam. Recycling initiatives have support from many restaurant owners whenever the topic of bans arises. With paper-based alternatives costing twice as much as foam containers, they have good reason to support recycling efforts.

Westerfield said that recycling advocates had received an offer from a recycler to make a long-term commitment to take the city’s post-consumer foam food service material, but the city pursued the ban anyway. Now, given the short timeline they have to work with, whether or not New York recyclers can do what it will take to avoid the ban is not clear.

If the city does initiate a ban, it would go against what environmentally conscious governments in other countries do to deal with polystyrene, according to Valkema. “We are one of many recycling EPS in the world today,” he said. “It seems like the U.S. is the only place where you see bans on the material.”

In the final analysis, the current trend toward expanded polystyrene bans in the U.S. seems primarily driven by a combination of political expediency and inaccurate understandings of how and whether foam can be recycled. As recycling is seen more and more to be a viable alternative, it seems likely that fewer bans will be enacted and perhaps that existing ones will be overturned. It will take education and effort by recycling advocates, but the bottom line is that both effective recycling techniques and markets for the recycled material exist. And that is a double positive that ultimately seems likely to prevail.

“Some materials are more difficult to recycle than others and our material is more difficult to recycle than some,” said Steiner. “But when you look at it from the environmental point of view, saving the environment isn’t always easy. Sometimes you have to put some work and thought behind it. That’s certainly the case with polystyrene.” 

Published in the March 2014 Edition of American Recycler News