NYC Foam Ban Raises Questions about Alternative Products

When New York City’s former Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, first announced a plan to reduce waste within his jurisdiction by banning foam products, most restaurants and eateries rejected the idea because alternative items would increase their cost of doing business. Now that his initial bill has passed, many individuals are also coming forward noting that Bloomberg’s plan is wrought with holes and difficulties that will not, in fact, do anything to reduce the amount of waste in NYC. Bloomberg’s bill refers to banning polystyrene foam, which is often mistakenly referred to as Styrofoam®, a trademark of the Dow Chemical Company. Polystyrene foam makes up many single-use foodservice items that consumers prefer, such as hot beverage cups and take-out containers.

The most common misconception about foam products is that they are problematic for the environment because they cannot be recycled like alternatives, such as paper cups. The truth is that polystyrene foam can be recycled, and almost all paper beverage products have a wax or plastic lining to prevent leaking, which in turn makes them very difficult to recycle. According to the American Chemistry Council, only 10% of paper foodservice items are recycled each year. Not only is this alternative not a viable option in terms of responsible disposal, but it also requires more energy and resources to be produced. In regards to using foam vs. paper cups, Christopher Bonanos of New York magazine noted, “It takes two and a half times as much energy to make a paper cup as it does to make a foam cup; foam cups are also much lighter than paper cups, reducing the amount of fuel needed to ship them.” As a result of this required energy, a single paper cup has a higher carbon footprint than a single foam cup.

Beyond the issues of recycling these items, many consumers are questioning exactly how banning one product will eliminate waste within New York City and its area landfills. Dunkin Donuts franchises throughout the US continue to develop recycling initiatives and reusable coffee mug programs; however, they too have issues with an all-out polystyrene foam ban. Lindsay Harrington, Dunkin Donuts spokeswoman, comments, “A polystyrene ban will not eliminate waste or increase recycling; it will simply replace one type of trash with another.”

Rather than eliminating a product that consumers and businesses prefer to use, many are inquiring about making recycling efforts for foam more prominent in cities throughout the US. When he was an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, chemist Martin Hockingwrote that an “improved infrastructure is all that is required to make this [recycling] option a more significant reality.”Michigan-based Dart Container Corporation is currently working with New York City’s government and its contractors to develop a program to boost their current foam recycling initiatives. Dart will work throughout 2014 with the city’s current waste processor to get the foam program running efficiently, with the hopes of eliminating the foam ban in favor of responsible and easy disposal of these products.

Foam Bans