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By Don Loepp | About The Plastics Blog

In defense of polystyrene, from an Ohio coffee shop

By Don Loepp | March 26, 2013 11:46 am ET
Keywords: Recycling

Image By: Jessica HolbrookA sign at Muggswigz Coffee & Tea Co. in Canton, Ohio, offers customers information on polystyrene cups.

Polystyrene cups and other food service products are under pressure from activists and politicians -- like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But not everyone agrees that PS should be banned.

Jessica Holbrook, one of Plastics News' staff reporters, shared this photo that she took at Muggswigz Coffee & Tea Co., which she describes as "a fantastic coffee shop" in downtown Canton, Ohio.

The sign reads: "Today's Tidbit: Our polystyrene to-go cups use 2x less energy in production than standard cups."

Jessica wrote: "I was pretty excited to find something Tweet-worthy and plastics related. And bonus points for not calling them Styrofoam."

Absolutely right.

Meanwhile, to put the PS issue in some historical perspective, here's an editorial that we ran in August 1997, when the National Polystyrene Recycling Co. announced that it was closing a plant in Bridgeport, N.J.

The column is pretty self-explanatory -- but I wonder if this had turned out differently, if New York City would still be looking at a PS ban today.

(I also should note that this column shouldn't imply that PS isn't recyclable. There definitely are PS recyclers out there, including in North America. NPRC couldn't sustain itself, but it didn't exactly have a low-cost business model.)

Here's the PN column, from Aug. 11, 1997:

Scale backs at NPRC bode ill for recycling

National Polystyrene Recycling Co. plans to close its Bridgeport, N.J., recycling plant by the end of the year. It blames red ink and scant demand for recycled PS. The move leaves NPRC with only two plants, in Chicago and Corona, Calif.

It's difficult to argue with this decision. In a sense, virgin PS suppliers made a huge commitment to trying to make PS recycling work. They claim to have spent $70 million on the project since 1989.

On the other hand, scaling back is nothing new for National Polystyrene Recycling Co. It seems like NPRC has been scaling back almost from the day it was conceived: Back from the ambitious plan to make PS recycling available to a huge chunk of America by creating a network of six large-scale regional plants. Back from its one-time goal to recycle 25 percent of post-consumer food service and packaging PS by 1995.

NPRC won plenty of warm, fuzzy national headlines when it first announced those objectives. But today it's a classic case of hype that backfired.

The mess isn't exclusively NPRC's fault. Perhaps the ultimate blame belongs to the public. In the late 1980s, citizens boycotted the McDonald's PS foam burger box, in part because of allegations that it wasn't recyclable. But in the 1990s the public seemed to forget about its obligation to buy recycled-content products.

A year ago, the plastics industry seemed to be in a dead-run retreat from its recycling commitments. Given that trend, maybe NPRC's owners — Chevron Chemical Co., Dow Chemical Co., Fina Oil and Chemical Co., Huntsman Chemical Corp. and Novacor Chemicals Inc. — deserve some credit for sticking with NPRC as long as they have.

Still, the remaining two plants are losing money, and company officials say bluntly they'll shut the plants down if they don't turn around. Publicly, no drop-dead dates have been set and the company plans several steps to make the operations profitable. These include charging on a per-pound basis for some PS waste raw material, and ending cash payments to other suppliers.

Just a few years ago, when NPRC's goal was to recycle 25 percent of PS waste, such a shift would have been counterproductive. The bar is much lower now.

Or has the bar completely disappeared? If the decision to close the Bridgeport plant meets no outcry, would industry be wrong to interpret that as a signal that it can safely shut down NPRC?


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In defense of polystyrene, from an Ohio coffee shop

By Don Loepp

Published: March 26, 2013 11:46 am ET
Updated: March 26, 2013 12:13 pm ET

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