The styrofoam industry's sponsored messaging needs a fact check
Over the last several weeks, residents in the Bronx and other parts of New York City have reported receiving robocalls urging them to call their Council members to tell them to support Intro 1480, a bill that would designate styrofoam as “recyclable.”
Hopefully, whenever New Yorkers receive robocalls, they know to ask, “Who paid for it?”
In this case, it is very likely that the plastic and styrofoam industry are behind the calls, under the guise of the Restaurant Action Alliance, a group sponsored by the American Chemical Council, a lobbying group that represents the nation’s largest chemical manufacturers, including the manufacturers of – you guessed it – Styrofoam.
But these sponsored robocalls do not tell the whole story.
We love recycling. But “designating” Styrofoam as “recyclable” by legislation does not actually mean it will be recycled – because recycling Styrofoam is simply not feasible. After a two-year exhaustive study, the New York City Department of Sanitation concluded that Styrofoam could not be recycled in an economically efficient and environmentally feasible manner. It will wind up in landfills, where it will remain, literally, forever.
Here’s why: Styrofoam food service containers are usually covered in oil and grease, making them nearly impossible to clean. Dirty food-service foam has no re-sale value in the manufacturing market, so recyclers will not accept it. Even if containers start out clean (even unused), once they are in the waste stream they soak up the dirt and grease of material around them (styrofoam is very porous). So recyclers treat all foam as contaminated. With no buyer, New York City would get stuck with the material and ultimately have no choice but to send it to landfill--where again, it will never decompose, and instead break into pieces, blow around, and get into our rivers, oceans and be eaten by wildlife.
Allowing food service foam containers to be put into the recycling stream actually contaminates truly recyclable material, like paper. Food service foam is very lightweight and gets easily blown around recycling facilities. It flattens in commingled recycling and can be accidentally sorted as paper in the sorting process, which devalues the paper bales and increases recycling costs.
Finally, simply designating the foam as recyclable instead of banning it altogether will mean that diesel trucks continue to travel through the neighborhoods overburdened with waste processing facilities where, not coincidentally, asthma rates are highest.
The City Council passed a law in 2013 that banned Styrofoam food containers, but the foam industry snuck loopholes into the final version, which has enabled them to fight and delay implementation. Meanwhile, they continue to profit from selling their environmentally harmful product. The phony recycling bill known as Intro 1480 is just one more part of their con.
If we actually want to achieve our “zero waste” goals for New York City, we should simply ban Styrofoam outright – as we have proposed in Intro 1596. Banning Styrofoam will make our city cleaner, reduce waste to landfill (since plastic container alternatives can be reused or recycled), protect wildlife and reduce truck trips through low-income neighborhoods.
That’s why at least fifty-five environmental advocates in New York City have come out in opposition to “phony recycling” and in support of our bill to ban it. In addition to these advocates, over 75 food service establishments and small businesses joined these advocates in support of the ban
So it really comes down to this: Whom are you going to believe? The entire environmental and recycling community? The 75-plus small businesses that support the Styrofoam ban? Or the for-profit corporations who profit from making and selling Styrofoam?
Brad Lander represents the 39th City Council District in Brooklyn. Antonio Reynoso represents the 34th Council District in Brooklyn.