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Can New York City Say Goodbye to Styrofoam Packaging?

Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia rejects the idea of recycling Styrofoam packaging trash as “economically feasible” — she has intelligently weighed the cost-benefits to small businesses and finally concluded, her department will save New York City millions of dollars by imposing a ban on Styrofoam.

Last year, after the Department of NYC Sanitation concluded that there are no viable means of recycling and reusing Styrofoam materials, Kathryn Garcia announced the new law. The ban, which will be implemented in all five boroughs, will require that no manufacturer or business sells, give or use any single-use Styrofoam product including coffee cups, foam trays and packing materials like packing peanuts.

New York City Council will start serving fines to street vendors and fast-food restaurants who refuse to use biodegradable packaging containers. This exercise will start in 2018, single-use Styrofoam products will cease to be in circulation in New York City due to new regulation supported by most environmental advocates and mostly millennials. In the last year of Mayor Bloomberg’s final term in office, Bloomberg made it his last mission to rid New York City of the non-biodegradable material.

NYC Garbage not Recyclable and Ends in Landfills

Banning Styrofoam in all its various shapes and forms will mean “removing nearly 30,000 tons of … waste from our landfills, streets, and waterways,” according to information from NYC department of sanitation. While it will mean an addition of waste in paper or other plastics, it will decrease the overall amount of garbage going into landfills since we do know how to recycle and have no means of reusing the post-consumer products of the other materials. The United States generates a total waste of 250.9 million tons per year, according to EPA data from 2012.

This is trash not being recycled or re-purposed. Earth Institute Executive Director Steven Cohen makes a valuable point that banning Styrofoam is a sign that New Yorkers are caring more about their environment and the waste that they are producing. This ban will raise awareness about the large amount of waste produced by the city and promote a shift in habits in even more New Yorkers.

To be sure, removing 30,000 tons of Styrofoam materials/objects out of circulation is not something that can easily happen overnight and without protest. It will require the cooperation of manufacturers, businesses, and the population to change their habits. The ruling to ban Styrofoam comes after investigation by the sanitation department considering a safe, economically viable way to recycle and reuse post-consumption products.

Although there are many substantial reasons why restaurants should use paper products instead of Styrofoam, some still believe it is the best option. It does protect hands from the extreme heat or cold, but to compensate for lack of insulation in paper, cardboard protectors can be used.

Styrofoam may at first seem like a better option, but paper is actually a much smarter choice.

Restaurants, if they must use disposable items, should consider changing from Styrofoam to paper. Styrofoam is damaging to the environment, wildlife, and the health of humans. The fact that it is not biodegradable and has harmful chemicals should convince people of its hazards. Paper is both biodegradable and safer for the environment, wildlife, and humans, and would be much better than Styrofoam. 

Why Post-consumer Styrofoam Packaging Cannot be Recycled

To use Styrofoam as a sustainable packaging material, a non-biodegradable product that fills up our landfills and that is made from non-renewable resource crude oil, it needs to be recyclable and reusable in its post-consumer form. The process to recycle Styrofoam requires that it is clean and free of any dirt, food, liquid, other forms of plastic, and other materials. From there it is ground up and treated with heat and friction to remove all air.

It is then melted and cooled into plastic pellets that can be used to manufacture other products. Unfortunately, there are very few plants that have the capability of processing Styrofoam, and there is no current market for post-consumer expanded polystyrene in the tristate area.

Manufacturing and Classification of Styrofoam

Styrofoam structurally is a plastic, specifically Type six, according to the seven different classifications of plastic. Plastic cutlery, coat hangers, video cases and some toys are all made of Type six plastic, but Styrofoam is the hardest form of Type six plastic to recycle. The reason comes down to its structural properties. Because of its brittleness, it is difficult to clean and remove from other materials without resulting in a jumbled mess of Styrofoam particles.

Being 95 percent air, Styrofoam is lightweight and is easily carried away by gusts of wind, allowing it to get into areas it should not be. In New York City, this includes clogging storm drains, littering streets and beaches, and drifting off into waterways that affect aquatic life. Expanded polystyrene also takes up much more space than normal polystyrene does, and since there are very few treatment plants that can handle recycling polystyrene, it is not economically nor environmentally efficient to transport Styrofoam to those facilities.

Alternative Packaging Materials 

The ban of Styrofoam will require changes in purchasing habits of restaurant owners, school cafeteria managers, food cart vendors and other business owners. These are some of the segments of the business community in New York City who will immediately look towards alternative packaging products.

New York City public schools serve around 850,000 students for breakfast and/or lunch every school day. Typically, lunches were provided on Styrofoam trays that are lightweight and could handle the heat and liquids of any meal. With the new regulation, schools will begin shifting to compostable plates in May and be completely Styrofoam-free by the summer 2018.

Many companies and businesses have already started researching and experimenting with new food packaging materials. Dunkin Donuts, famous for the Styrofoam cups that keep coffee warm for hours, is considering a double-walled paper cup. Other possible alternatives are recyclable plastics and reusable tumblers, although those are not as popular to many customers who like Styrofoam cups

Conclusion

In all likelihood, it won’t be an obstacle for New York City to implement the ban on Styrofoam. In 2015, when the law was first enacted and later struck down by Justice Margaret A. Chan of State Supreme Court but the New York State Restaurant Association pledged its support for the foam ban, and spokesperson Chris Hickey said that any additional costs will be “nominal at best” and easily integrated into a business’s operational expenses. “We don’t feel that it’s going to extremely economically affect the businesses,” he says.

New Yorkers’ love affair with takeout food is well documented. If a foam ban can make it there, it just might make it anywhere. For now, the Styrofoam ban will be imperfect until it is phased out in the surrounding areas. Styrofoam will still exist in the city from incoming shipments, albeit much less will be in trashcans overall.

Although there are many substantial reasons why restaurants should use paper and molded pulp products instead of Styrofoam, some still believe it is the best option. It does protect consumer hands from the extreme heat or cold, but to compensate for lack of insulation in paper, cardboard protectors can be used.

Styrofoam may at first seem like a better option, but paper is a much healthier choice.

Fast food restaurants, if they must use disposable items, should consider changing from Styrofoam to paper. Styrofoam is damaging to the environment, wildlife, and the health of humans. The fact that it is not biodegradable and has harmful chemicals should convince people of its hazards. Paper is both biodegradable and safer for the environment, wildlife, and humans, and is much better than Styrofoam.