Guest column: There's no viable option for polystyrene foam in NYC

Published: April 3, 2013 10:23 am ET
Updated: April 3, 2013 3:56 pm ET

Image By: DSNY Ron Gonen

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Topics Public Policy, Sustainability, Recycling

NEW YORK — Recently, the American Chemistry Council described what it believed to be the economic impact on businesses if the proposed ban of expanded polystyrene foam products used by the food service industry in New York City is passed by City Council.

New York City disagrees with the description.

In fact, NYC was driven to propose the ban based on the fact that foam is a costly contaminant to our recycling and organics collection stream. In addition, we believe that this ban will support the many local and national businesses that have aligned with our goal of ensuring that all products and packaging are recyclable.

NYC has long-term contracts to recycle and sell a wide range of paper, metal, glass, plastic, textiles and e-waste. The private companies and industries that own and manage these contracts have invested in the long-term sustainability and excellence of our recycling and waste diversion programs.

NYC has both the highest landfill disposal costs of any major city in North America and the largest amount of waste. Our landfill disposal bill last year was more than $300 million and we expect that cost to continue to increase unless we are able to divert a significant amount of waste from landfills.

Thirty-five percent of our waste stream is recyclable paper and metal, glass and plastic (MGP); 35 percent is organic material; and 10 percent is textiles and e-waste. The remaining 20 percent is represented by "other," which is comprised of materials like polystyrene foam that NYC has never been able to viably recycle and must therefore send to landfills. Even worse, that material contaminates and disrupts our paper, MGP, and organics streams at a significant cost to taxpayers.

Along with deploying robust recycling programs to capture recyclable material, we are actively engaged in waste characterization studies to identify any products or packaging in our waste stream that we have never been able to viably recycle and market. When those materials are identified, our preference is that the specified company or industry proactively provide a method and contract for diverting that material from landfills, recycling and marketing it. If they are unable to do so, then we will seek alternative methods to ensure that taxpayers do not carry the cost burden of sending that material to landfill.

The information from the American Chemistry Council did not include a method, offer or contract to collect, process or market polystyrene foam, or discuss taking responsibility for the cost that taxpayers incur for sending the material to landfill or the cost that our paper, MGP and organics processors incur when polystyrene foam contaminates their material. Instead, it claimed a supposed cost that businesses will incur by switching to alternative products like paper, other plastics and compostable products.

First, we have never been presented with the corroborating data or the list of businesses that the American Chemistry Council's report is referring to. Second, we have received strong support for the ban from businesses that manufacture paper, plastic and compostable products for the food service industry and the many local businesses in the food service industry and national chains that long ago eliminated polystyrene foam from their businesses.

In addition, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Ore., have all implemented bans on expanded polystyrene containers and continue to have a growing, healthy and robust food service and restaurant industry while also achieving the highest diversion rates in the country.

We would welcome and encourage the American Chemistry Council to submit a proposal to New York City and its MRF operators on how foam can be profitably sorted and sold to a market for reuse and or recycling. That type of proposal would be viewed as collaborative and mutually beneficial to the city, MRFs and the foam industry.

Ron Gonen is New York City's deputy commissioner of sanitation, recycling and sustainability. He wrote this column for Waste & Recycling News, a sister publication to Plastics News.


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Guest column: There's no viable option for polystyrene foam in NYC

Published: April 3, 2013 10:23 am ET
Updated: April 3, 2013 3:56 pm ET

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