As New York City debates a ban on foam containers, suppliers pitch an alternative.

Erik Engquist
CRAIN'S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Published: November 22, 2013 11:07 pm ET
Updated: November 22, 2013 11:16 pm ET

Related to this story

Topics Packaging, Sustainability, Public Policy, Food service

To many coffee shops, take-out joints and supermarkets, plastic foam is a blessing. Light, insulating and cheap, it keeps coffee hot, shrimp rolls crispy and eggs intact.

To the Bloomberg administration, environmentalists and recyclers, it's a nightmare. Difficult to recycle and potentially toxic, it dirties the city, costs taxpayers money and sits in landfills for centuries.

The two views are coming to a head as the City Council decides whether to ban plastic-foam food containers or add the material, called expanded polystyrene, to the curbside recycling program. The mayor's office wants a ban passed before Bill de Blasio takes over Jan. 1.

Foam makers have been fighting the ban since Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed it in February. Michael Westerfield, corporate director of recycling programs for Michigan-based Dart Container, one of the largest makers of foam cups, has spent much of the past nine months here meeting with sanitation officials, the mayor himself, council members, lobbyists and the city's plastics-and-metal vendor, Sims Metal Management.

If city trucks would collect plastic foam from residents and Sims would separate it, Westerfield pledged, Dart would purchase equipment to wash and dry it and then buy it for $160 per ton for five years, nearly twice what the city pays to put it in landfills, replacing a $2 million municipal expense with a $4 million revenue stream.

With about half of Dart's $3.5 billion in annual sales coming from expanded polystyrene, and the prospect of other cities copying a New York ban, the company has good reason to subsidize such a program. "If this fails, you know what it does to us as a company?" Westerfield asked. "It kills us."

Dozens of municipalities recycle plastic foam, and about 70 have bans, but the choice in New York is complicated. The Brooklyn facility that Sims will open next month to automatically sort metal, plastics and juice boxes won't be able to cull plastic foam contaminated by food and drink—so-called dirty foam.

Absent that step, recycling the foam is impossible; hence, Dart's offer to wash it. The company, founded in Michigan in 1937 and now with plants around the world, has two that wash used cups.

Jerry Powell, executive editor of Resource Recycling Magazine, said that Dart's foam-recovery program would be the largest ever attempted in the U.S., that its washing technology is fairly new and untested at such volumes and that foam particles would make a mess at Sims' plant.

'Itty, bitty pieces'

Brooklyn Councilman Lew Fidler, the prime sponsor of the bill to enact the mayor's ban, agreed. "If it could be recycled, everyone's for that," Mr. Fidler explained. "The problem is, I don't think it can be. A Styrofoam cup thrown into a recycling truck—how many itty, bitty pieces is it going to end up in? How can you wash those itty, bitty pieces?"

Foam makers say their containers hold up well, and Tom Outerbridge, general manager at Sims, concurred, but cited a caveat.

"If you get the packaging that comes with a stereo, it comes apart into a thousand little beads," Outerbridge said. "I wouldn't be worried about that coming from cups and trays. But [foam] peanuts will go all over the place, and Styrofoam packaging would get busted up in our machinery and be floating around everywhere like confetti."

Still, Manhattan Councilman Robert Jackson, who has introduced a bill with Brooklyn Councilwoman Diana Reyna to add plastic foam to the city's curbside recycling program, said it's worth a try.

"Here's a company saying, 'We will recycle it; we will pay you $160 a ton,' " Jackson said. "It will get it out of the waste stream, and the city will earn several million dollars. Hello? That sounds like a great win to me for the city of New York."

Westerfield said Dart's proposal would solve another problem. To add weight, the foam would be baled with the rigid No. 6 plastic used for things like aspirin bottles and CD cases. The city added that to its recycling program last spring, but Sims mostly sends it to landfills because it's currently worthless.

Dart would truck the baled material to Indianapolis-based Plastic Recycling, which would process it for use in picture frames and tape dispensers. The company's marketing manager, Brandon Shaw, flew to New York last week to assure skeptics that he could sell every ounce of the city's foam—if it's clean.

Manufacturers have also trotted out restaurateurs to praise the quality and price of foam. The savings over cardboard and coated paper is a penny per cup and a few cents per container. "Every dollar counts," said Astrid Portillo, proprietor of Mi Pequeño El Salvador in Jackson Heights, Queens. No customer in 20 years has complained about foam, she added. A Quinnipiac poll found New Yorkers favor a ban, 69 percent to 26 percent.

Deputy Sanitation Commissioner Ron Gonen, who crafted the Bloomberg plan, said cost-competitive substitutes exist for everything in the ban, which would take effect in July 2015. His pursuit of polystyrene was likened to Captain Ahab's quest for Moby Dick by Westerfield, who noted that many alternative products are lined with non-recyclable material and go to landfills. Dart makes some of them.

The fight will spill into public view at a Nov. 25 hearing. Fidler said the next mayor could postpone the ban if foam recycling becomes practical. But the industry's prospects look bleak. A few years ago, an ambitious councilman pushed to ban foam trays from public schools. His name was Bill de Blasio.

A version of this article appears in the November 25, 2013, print issue of Crain's New York Business as "A drastic plan for plastic".


Comments

As New York City debates a ban on foam containers, suppliers pitch an alternative.

Erik Engquist
CRAIN'S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Published: November 22, 2013 11:07 pm ET
Updated: November 22, 2013 11:16 pm ET

Post Your Comments


Back to story


More stories

Image

Brown signs California's plastic bag ban into law

September 30, 2014 1:38 pm ET

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) made it official today: plastic bags are banned across the entire state of California.    More

Image

Teens put a cap on watery ketchup

September 30, 2014 1:57 pm ET

Whether you spell it ketchup or catsup, use it on burgers or fries, or prefer Heinz or Hunt's, there is one universal problem for the ages: That...    More

Image

Toyoda Gosei pleads guilty, agrees to $26 million fine for price fixing

September 30, 2014 11:27 am ET

Toyoda Gosei Co. Ltd. has pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a $26 million fine for its alleged role in an international conspiracy to rig bids and fix ...    More

Image

Amcor planning more growth in Asia

September 30, 2014 10:24 am ET

Flexible packaging firm Amcor Ltd. is rapidly expanding its presence in the Asian market. The company's top official in the region said it will soon...    More

Image

Uflex to build large flexible packaging plant in western India

September 30, 2014 10:01 am ET

Flexible packaging company Uflex Ltd. is planning a major new plant in the western Indian state of Gujarat.    More

Market Reports

Plastics in Mexico - State of the Industry Report

This report analyzes the $20 million dollar plastics industry in Mexico including sales of machinery & equipment, resins and finished products.

Our industry analysis highlights macro industry trends and micro trends faced by companies that do business in Mexico. The report also provides key industry statistics and forecasts to anticipate future industry expansion.

Learn more

Plastics Caps & Closures Market Report

The annual recap of top trends and future outlook for the plastics caps & closures market features interviews with industry thought leaders and Bill Wood’s economic forecast of trends in growing end markets. You will also gain insight on trends in caps design, materials, machinery, molds & tooling and reviews of mergers & acquisitions.

Learn more

Injection Molders Market Report & Ranking 2014

This special package contains our 132-page 2014 Market Report on the Injection Molding segment and our exclusive 2014 RANKINGS database of 500+ Injection Molders for a discounted package price.

Learn more

Upcoming Plastics News Events

January 14, 2015 - January 14, 2015Plastics in Automotive

February 4, 2015 - February 6, 2015Plastics News Executive Forum 2015

June 2, 2015 - June 3, 2015Plastics Financial Summit - Chicago 2015

September 16, 2015 - September 18, 2015Plastics Caps & Closures - September 2015

More Events