Have you heard of PolitiFact, the newspaper feature that judges statements from politicians on a scale that starts with “true” and ends with “pants-on-fire”?
There are actually six options on the scale, including such ambiguous terms as “mostly true,” “half true” and “mostly false.”
PolitiFact came to mind last week when Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chan ruled on Sept. 22 that expanded polystyrene is recyclable, and she overturned a pending ban by New York City.
“The one undisputed short answer to whether EPS is recyclable is: Yes single-serve EPS is recyclable,” Chan wrote. Chan called the market for post-consumer EPS “viable and growing.”
Plastics companies like Dart Container Corp. cheered her words, while critics were quick to disagree — so the word “undisputed” doesn't quite seem correct, even if her opinion is firmly in the “true” column.
This much is for sure: Manufacturers of single-serve PS food service products are counting on Chan being right.
This is an important story. Not quite at the same level as the ban on plastic bags in California. But New Yorkers use a lot of PS, including foam cups and clamshells from takeout restaurants. The city estimates 30,000 tons annually.
If New York City bans PS foam, other cities will follow. If the Big Apple can prove that PS is really recyclable, it will give the material a big image boost.
That's a pretty big mountain to climb.
In 1989, PS resins suppliers tried to put a stop to a wave of product bans by setting up a network of recycling plants across the country, and committing to a 25 percent recycling goal,
The resin companies spent 10 years and $85 million trying to jump-start PS recycling in the 1990s before they threw in the towel — or at least turned it over to the more entrepreneurial recycling sector.
Now Mason, Mich.-based Dart Container has picked up the burden to prove that PS is recyclable, and once again the plastics industry is prepared to spend a lot of money to prove the point: Dart is offering $23 million to the New York City Sanitation Department to pay for equipment, employees and training.
On top of that, Indianapolis-based Plastics Recycling Inc. has agreed to buy New York's PS bales at $160 per ton over the next five years, potentially saving the city $758,765 in landfill fees and instead generating more than $2.8 million in revenue.
New York's plan to ban EPS hinged on the idea that the city could not economically recycle the material. If it can't be recycled, PS will end up in landfills or as litter.
If the ban is eventually reinstated, chances are pretty good that whatever materials restaurants use instead — paper, polypropylene, bioresins, whatever — also will end up in landfills or as litter.
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. The judge's decision just means that it won't be mandated.
Meanwhile, this is an opportunity for industry to prove, once and for all, that EPS is really recyclable.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.