WASHINGTON — New York City's proposed ban on polystyrene foam packaging could cost nearly $100 million annually and hurt businesses across the state, according to a new study.
The study, conducted by research firm MB Public Affairs on behalf of the American Chemistry Council, shows that such a ban could nearly double food service packaging costs — while doing little to actually reduce waste.
"Total costs to replace plastic foam foodservice and drink containers and trays with the lowest-cost alternative are estimated at $91.3 million [per year.] This level translates into an effective minimum average cost increase of 94 percent," the study says.
"In other words, for every $1.00 now spent on plastic foam foodservice and drink containers, NYC consumers and businesses will have to spend at least $1.94 on the alternative replacements, effectively doubling the cost to businesses."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg called PS foam "something that we know is environmentally destructive, that is costing taxpayers' money, and that is easily replaceable and is something we can do without," in his state of the city address earlier this month. He and Speaker of the City Council Christine Quinn plan to adopt a law banning PS food packaging from stores and restaurants.
So far, no such measure has been introduced.
The city itself is one of the biggest purchasers of PS food service containers, spending nearly $12 million a year on items such as cups and trays. Switching to the lowest cost paper alternatives would cost the city an additional $11 million a year, including $8 million for the Education Department alone, according to the study.
Restaurants would see an estimated $57 million increase in costs, the report says.
The study — and the plastics industry — are also trying to clear up common misconceptions about PS and its paper alternatives.
The City of New York Department of Sanitation's Web site specifically mentions paper coffee cups and other paper food service items cannot be recycled in the city's current waste management system. And with common complaints that paper cups do not insulate as well as EPS, consumers are prone to "double cupping" or using an additional cardboard sleeve to keep contents warm, leading to increased unrecyclable waste, which would raise the city's costs beyond the beyond the $91 million per year estimated in this study.
Moreover, despite Bloomberg's speech, PS is being successfully recycled in 65 cities around the United States, including Los Angeles, says Keith Christman, managing director of plastic markets at ACC.
"I know there are recyclers in the area," Christman said. "We'd like to work with the city to develop foam recycling in New York City."
It is a common assumption that paper alternatives to foam are recyclable simply because they are made of paper, Christman said.
"In many cases, other cities have proposed bans but ultimately rejected them as they learned more of the facts," he said. "I think the bottom line is that there are much better ways to go than a ban."
Just a quick trip down I-95 from New York, in New Brunswick, N.J., Gary M. Frederick and his business partner Daryl Little of Princeton Moulding Group LLC are wishing New Yorkers would use more EPS, not less.
Princeton Moulding, part of parent company Aflex Extrusion Technologies Inc., manufactures decorative picture frame and architectural moldings from recycled PS. The company designs, develops and manufactures its own tooling for custom work, competing primarily with companies in China and South Korea for work as well as raw materials, Frederick said.
"Believe it or not, when we first started using the recycled stuff, we couldn't find it," he said. "We started off having to import it."
In the 10 years since Princeton Moulding moved from making cellular foam molding with a different method, Frederick has built up a reliable recycled PS supplier base.
In August 2012, Princeton Moulding moved its 30 employees from a 30,000 square foot facility to one with 60,000 square feet and its own recycling line and an EPS collection point.
"Now, anyone could literally just make a drop off right at the plant," he said. "Most of what we get right now is from furniture and appliance packaging but we see some food services trays, cups, whatever. I've got a pile of Dunkin Donuts cups on my desk right now I'm going to throw on the line later."
But it is the availability of PS that is the primary factor holding back further expansion at Princeton Moulding, Frederick said. While an EPS ban in New York City would not hold up his collection of appliance packaging, it would permanently cut off a potential supply from ever being developed and reinforce the notion among consumers that foam is not recyclable.
"Even in my own neighborhood, and I live in the suburbs, it's not on the list to be collected at the curb with the other recyclables. So people think you can't recycle it at all," he said. "It's a shame that it's 100 percent recyclable but most people don't know that."