Larry McIntyre is in on the West Coast; Michael Forrest, on the East Coast. But they both have the same message for manufacturers of polystyrene food-service products: Get involved in recycling, make products with recycled content, or risk more bans and a loss of business.
To be sure, McIntyre and Forrest have a vested interest, as both their companies recycle PS food-service packaging from school systems. But their larger concern is with the packaging's future.
``I want to save our industry. It really is in trouble,'' said Forrest, chief executive officer of Evergreen Partnering Group in North Reading, Mass. Evergreen uses a closed-loop system for recycling PS foam trays from public schools and institutional cafeterias in Boston and Providence, R.I.; and schools in Pasco County, Fla., and Gwinnett County, Georgia the nation's 18th-largest school district.
McIntyre's business, Recycling Professionals Inc. in West Linn, Ore., recycles PS and polypropylene food-service packaging from seven school districts within a 100-mile radius of Portland; along with commercial accounts such as company cafeterias.
``We are at a crisis point on the West Coast,'' said McIntyre, Recycling Professionals' vice president and general manager. ``Legislatively, [the industry] has gone about as far as they can and they are getting their heads handed to them on a platter because their arguments are not holding water.''
Since September 2005, 14 bans have been enacted in California, with more proposals pending this year in California and Seattle as well as communities far removed from the West Coast like Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore.
``These cities want action on solid waste and greenhouses gases and want to get to a zero-waste concept. They don't want it going to a landfill,'' McIntyre said. ``Some industry people are not sure whether recycling is for them, but I'm not sure we have too many more arrows left in the quiver.
``The industry has to get going. It can't stand and wait for someone else to take the lead,'' he said. ``You either do it or you are out of business.
``There is a real strong movement on the West Coast to impose bans because there is a lack of product stewardship. You have to show them you are working toward recycling.''
The drive to ban PS takeout packaging threatens a market that the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group of the American Chemistry Council last fall estimated to be $420 million, equally split between paper and plastics. California accounts for 16 percent of the nation's restaurant sales, and quick-service and quick-casual sales account for 41 percent of all restaurant sales.
``With all the environmental concerns, we have a good story to tell,'' McIntyre said. ``We are recycling and we see that as a good future in a world moving toward zero waste. And that is something that no other food-service grade of plastics packaging is currently doing.''
In June, Forrest, with 35 years in the packaging business, will open a 20,000-square-foot facility in Lawrence, Ga., to replace a 17,000-square-foot site in nearby Norcross that it has used since 2006 to recycle trays from Gwinnett County schools. The district uses about 20 million trays annually. Evergreen also recycles trays from a plant in Boston that is managed and run by the city's public school system.
Schools are relatively easy places to set up a PS recycling system, compared with fast-food locations, said Jim Lammers, vice president of administration and general counsel for packaging firm Dart Container Corp. in Mason, Mich.
``School districts do it the best because kids are eating at the same relative place and using the same packaging day in, day out,'' Lammers said. ``But when you move to fast-food locations or arenas, it is a different story.''
``The greatest likelihood for success comes from scholastic institutions and cafeterias,'' said Tom Tomaszek, who was general manger in the late 1980s for the PS recycling firm, Plastics Again in Leominster, Mass., which later became part of the National Polystyrene Recycling Co.
``Quick-service fast-food restaurants hold a somewhat different and much more difficult challenge [as] most of the major food service chains have elected to go to more diverse packaging and you have a commingled package stream,'' he said. ``I am doubtful that you could economically recycle this stream today, unless you were attempting to salvage the energy value of the materials.''
The same holds true for quick- service and higher valued restaurants with takeout service, said Tomaszek. ``Most people visit [these restaurants] because of their hectic lifestyle and simply do not have the time to return a recyclable package for recycling. I am doubtful if you could attain any sizable recovery rates in this method and hence economic success is questionable.''
However, in Canada, restaurant chain Tim Hortons recycles PS packaging in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, Labrador and Quebec, and in the city of Owen Sound, Ontario, where it is mandatory. Tim Hortons and Wendy's are the only fast-food restaurants complying with the Owen Sound law, which the city admits it has been slow to enforce.
Dart has more than 40 drop-off locations in 30 counties in Michigan and works with hundreds of public schools, five state universities and the state of Michigan to recycle all types of foam PS. It also has recycling centers at four of its plants that recycle more than 12 million pounds of PS annually.
Evergreen's model is different. It makes food-grade resin that manufacturers use to produce recycled-content PS trays to sell back to the school systems. Evergreen currently works with manufacturing partners like Commodore Plastics in Bloomfield, N.Y., and Genpack Corp. in Glen Falls, N.Y.
``The industry has been slow moving on this, but it has to embrace closed-loop recycling as Coca-Cola has with PET bottles,'' Forrest said.
In 2006, the Recycling Professionals, for example, recovered roughly 130,000 pounds of material from school districts, including 2.5 million lunch trays, 1.2 million plates, 3.4 million pieces of cutlery, 1 million cups and 180 thousand bowls and containers.
``It is enviro-economics,'' Forrest said. ``It gives you a value stream. It gives big chains the cost-effective, green packaging they want and it saves schools money'' in landfill costs, as PS packaging typically represents 40 percent of a school system's waste.
In the late 1980s, the industry established the National Polystyrene Recycling Co., at considerable expense, to spur increased PS recycling, but it never achieved that objective. Partly because of that unsuccessful effort 20 years ago, PS food-service companies, until seven or eight months ago, had been ``adamant against putting food-grade recycled content into their containers,'' Forrest said.
Dolco Packaging, which is part of TechniPlex in Somerville, N.J., and Genpack are companies that have been looking into using recycled content for their food-service packaging, according to Forrest and McIntyre.
Forrest said now is the time for the industry to capitalize on the opportunity, given the ``high profile'' of the green movement. ``This strategy of diverting material from the waste stream and making it into packaging material again makes sense,'' he said.
``We have many partnering processors and investors interested in helping us expand. However, without a value stream fostered from green products, our model does not work. We need long-term commitments, not short-term subsidies in hopes that the problem will fade away.''
The industry needs to move toward incorporating recycled content into its products, said Forrest. ``We can only go further if the manufacturers step up to run the material back into food-service products. Key national operators and schools are tired of hearing the excuse by fabricators that they can't supply post-consumer content products because there isn't enough material.''
McIntyre and Forrest said their models and success illustrate that recycling food-service PS can be economical. Plus, there is the bonus of helping financially strapped school systems, Forrest said.
The top 20 school systems in the U.S. use 1 billion foam trays, according to Forrest enough to fill 10 million 60-gallon trash bags, 27,000 trash trucks and 400,000 10-yard dumpsters. A system of 200 schools could avoid about 10,000 dumpster pulls and 650 landfill truckloads if it recycled its PS trays, he said.
``It is costing the top 20 school systems more than $15 million annually to trash that foam,'' Forrest said. ``It costs schools anywhere from 20-60 percent of the cost of our products to trash the trays.
``Our largest school systems around the country are in a financial crunch and laying off teachers. You save schools money, you have cost-effective packaging, you recycle, reduce and reuse, and you have product stewardship. You divert truckloads of materials from landfills and save teacher jobs.''