Today my colleagues at Crain's New York Business editorialized on Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chan ruling that struck down the city's ban on expanded polystyrene containers.
The Crain's column, “Try again on container ban,” has some good points. But it starts with an assumption about EPS and other materials that I don't think has been proven, and I don't agree with the conclusion.
The essence of the column is a topic that I'm very familiar with; in fact, I also editorialized about it this week. It's this question: is EPS recycling really a sustainable business?
“There is no established market for plastic-foam cups, plates and clamshell food containers that have been soiled by consumers,” the Crain's column asserts. “It doesn't make sense for the city to re-engineer its recycling program — and rely on subsidies from a single firm to prop up a market — to accommodate a material that makes up a minuscule fraction of the waste stream.”
For what it's worth, Judge Chan's legal decision strongly disagrees with Crain's viewpoint: “The one undisputed short answer to whether EPS is recyclable is: Yes, single-serve EPS is recyclable,” Chan wrote. She even called the market for post-consumer EPS “viable and growing.”
Who is right? That's a key question, because New York's plan to ban EPS is based on the idea that the city could not economically recycle the material. (It's also relies on the idea that EPS is a major problem, but more on that later).
I'm not convinced that anyone can economically recycle large volumes of post-consumer food service EPS. But this is a great opportunity for Dart Container Corp. to prove that post-consumer EPS really is recyclable.
But that's not where my opinion is different from Crain's New York's. For me, it's a larger question of whether EPS really is worse than whatever alternatives that restaurants and fast-food joints in New York City will use for its take-out clamshells and foam cups.
As I wrote in my column, if EPS can't be recycled, it will end up in landfills or as litter. But so would the materials that restaurants will use instead — paper, polypropylene, bioresins, whatever. Clamshells caked with food waste and dirty coffee cups will be hard to recycle, no matter what the material.
There's an assumption by Crain's, and other media, that some food containers are environmentally friendlier than others. The column asserts that “environmentalists say the very manufacture of expanded polystyrene is bad for the planet, and note that cups and plates used by New Yorkers on the run often end up as litter or stuck in sewage plants.”
Couldn't environmentalists make the same claims about any single-use package? There's a widespread assumption that paper is environmentally superior to EPS. Is it really? How about aluminum? Or polypropylene? Or any one of a number of plant-based and/or biodegradable polymers? The point is debatable.
Plastics processors will be happy to manufacture food service products made from any material that customers demand —or that politicians mandate. No one is stopping companies from making the switch to non-PS materials on their own, and I expect many will continue on that path. Judge Chan's decision just means that changes to other materials won't be mandated.