For the second time in less than three years, the New York City Department of Sanitation is instituting a city-wide ban on single-use Styrofoam. The ban includes the lightweight, brittle foam containers and cups commonly used by take-out food establishments, as well as loose “packing peanuts.”
A comprehensive report published this month by the DSNY concluded that polystyrene foam cannot be recycled in a manner that is economically feasible or environmentally effective, and states that “no food service establishment, mobile food commissary, or store shall possess, sell, or offer for use single service articles that consist of expanded polystyrene,” beginning November 13, 2017.
This Sounds Familiar
The first NYC ban on single-use Styrofoam was actually crafted by the Bloomberg administration in 2013. De Blasio enacted the bill in July 2015, and it was immediately challenged by a coalition of groups with vested interest in styrofoam containers (a restaurant trade group and Dart Container, a major foam product manufacturer). The group sued the city, arguing that polystyrene foam is indeed recyclable. New York Supreme Court judge Margaret Chan agreed, overturning the ban.
Chan, citing evidence provided by the Restaurant Action Alliance, noted that there was “abundant evidence showing a viable and growing market for not just clean EPS (expanded polystyrene foam) but post-consumer EPS material,” and suggested that the city produce another report on the recycling potential of the foam.
A New Battle Brewing
Now that DSNY has issued its follow-up report and resulting ban, two new foam bills are also being heard in City Council.
Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera has introduced legislation that would add polystyrene to the city’s official list of recyclable materials. By contrast, Park Slope Councilman Brad Lander’s bill reiterates DSNY’s position and restricts the sale of certain foam containers.
Cabrera told WNYC that foam containers are a staple in many ethnic restaurants, and claimed that the DNSY’s ban would cause economic hardship for small businesses in his community. Lander’s bill does include a waiver for non-profits and and non-chain restaurants.
It is worth nothing that Cabrera and approximately a dozen other City Council members have received campaign contributions from Ariane Dart, wife of Dart Container CEO. According to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, Dart contributed more than $39,000 in 2013, the first year the polystyrene ban was debated in City Council, and has contributed to Cabrera as recently as 2016.
Dart Container has already pledged to challenge the city’s polystyrene ban in court. “It’s wrong for struggling small businesses, restaurants and taxpayers,” said Michael Westerfield, Dart’s corporate director of recycling programs.
Sanitation Department Commissioner Kathryn Garcia feels strongly, though, that the city’s position is legit. Testifying in opposition to Cabrera’s bill, she asserted that, “The municipalities and programs that the Department researched tell a very clear story: Food-Service Foam is not capable of being recycled in an environmentally effective or an economically feasible manner.”
Indeed, the DSNY report makes a compelling case for banning the foam. The Department consulted with a number of related agencies, including Sims Municipal Recycling; manufacturers and purported recyclers of expanded polystyrene; plastics industry and recycling market experts; other municipalities and their recycling contractors; and other stakeholders with expertise on expanded polystyrene.
They concluded that in most municipalities, even if foam is collected for recycling, it is regularly sent to landfill anyway because it is contaminated or impossible to separate from the waste stream, or because no buyer for the material exists.