What’s next in New York?

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After an attempt to ban polystyrene foam products, New York City has yet to accept an offer that would cover the equipment and transportation costs to recycle this material.

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March 30, 2016
Megan Workman
© Photosmile2010 | Dreamstime.com

F rank Sinatra is well-known for his rendition of “New York, New York,” singing, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” That mindset is shared by Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI), Falls Church, Virginia, and others when it comes to recycling polystyrene (PS) foam in the nation’s most densely populated major city.

“If you can make foam recycling happen in New York City, you can make it work in other cities and [in] Canada, too,” Dyer says.

Whether it’s New York City or a small rural town, in general there is a perception that PS foam cannot be recycled, Dyer says. “And that could not be further from the truth,” she adds.

CURRENT COLLECTIONS

Dyer and Michael Westerfield, corporate director of recycling programs at Dart Container Corp., Mason, Michigan, point to an interactive PS foam recycling map, available at www.recyclemore plastic.org/plastics/eps_map.html, created by the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Washington. The map details recycling collection programs in the U.S. and Canada that accept foam PS food packaging, transport packaging or both for recycling. The map shows that PS foam recycling is already successful is several large U.S. cities, they say.

In fact, California has more than 60 curbside recycling programs that collect PS foam items from residents for recycling, Dyer says.

“The bottom line is, why would you put into landfill a valuable material that can be recycled and turned into something else? There’s value to that product,” she says, “and burying that product makes no sense whatsoever. We know there’s demand for that material.”

Collected PS foam is recycled into a number of products, including picture frames, baseboards and crown molding. More niche products are manufactured from recycled PS as well, such as tape dispensers and aquarium parts.

Demand currently exists for PS foam items collected from all five of New York City’s boroughs, with a buyer guaranteed for the long term; yet, the city has not accepted Dart’s offer to help implement a recycling program for the material.

seeking an alternative

Rather than embrace PS foam recycling, in 2013 New York City introduced a ban on single-service PS foam food-service products.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration announced that beginning July 1, 2015, the city’s food-service establishments, stores and manufacturers would not be allowed to possess, sell or offer single-use items, such as cups, plates, trays or clamshell containers. The sale of loose-fill packaging also was banned.

Plastic Recycling, Indianapolis, operates three facilities that recycle EPS and other plastics. Image: Plastic Recycing Inc.

“And quickly our customers, our competitors, recyclers and restaurants were upset about the ban,” Westerfield says. “There wasn’t anyone who wasn’t upset about it other than the activists and the ill-informed.”

Westerfield says Dart and other interested parties worked on a proposal to address the city’s concerns regarding expanded polystyrene (EPS). Foam manufacturers, recyclers and restaurant owners met with city officials and presented the solution (ultimately a plan to recycle all of the city’s EPS items through its current residential curbside recycling program). They reached a compromise.

Rather than an outright ban of single-use PS foam food-service items, Westerfield says the New York City Council in December 2013 passed Local Law 142, requiring New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) Commissioner Kathryn Garcia to determine whether EPS single-service products could be recycled at the Sims Municipal Recycling (SMR) Sunset Park MRF in Brooklyn. (Read Recycling Today’s profile of SMR’s Sunset Park MRF in the article “Into the Sunset” at www.RecyclingToday.com/article/rt0414-MRF-series-Sims.) The city manages a curbside residential recycling program and could use existing trucks to collect PS foam for recycling.

Local Law 142 stipulated that single-service EPS items would have to be banned if Commissioner Garcia found that they could not be recycled.

Garcia had until Jan. 1, 2015, to determine the viability of recycling EPS, at which point she and DSNY concluded no market existed for postconsumer EPS collected in curbside recycling programs with metals, glass and paper.

Needless to say, that did not go over well with recyclers processing this material, the foam manufacturers that promote EPS recycling nor the restaurant owners, who would be faced with higher costs related to the higher price of foam packaging alternatives.

Robert Jackson, New York Restaurant Action Alliance (RAA) leader and former city council member, said at the time, “Denying foam’s recyclability is like denying the sky is blue; it just doesn’t make sense.”

Westerfield uses the words “confused,” “dumbfounded” and “frustrating” to convey the thoughts of the ban’s opponents at the time.

“The bottom line is, why would you put into landfill a valuable material that can be recycled and turned into something else?” – Lynn Dyer, Foodservice Packaging Institute

“We invested so much in this recycling program to get it going for them and addressed every concern that they have,” he says. “We really took to heart what they said to us and presented a solution doing exactly what they asked us to do.”

Westerfield says Dart has offered to pay all of the costs related to purchasing the processing equipment necessary for the Sunset Park MRF to handle PS foam materials, including an optical sorter.

Additionally, the previously mentioned guaranteed buyer, Indianapolis-based Plastic Recycling Inc., has offered to cover the costs of transporting the collected and sorted EPS by rail from Sunset Park to its Indianapolis facility for processing.

Plastic Recycling even built a second facility three miles from its existing Indianapolis plant in anticipation of accepting New York City’s recovered PS foam materials for processing. (The company also operates as small plant outside of Knoxville, Tennessee.)

After the city decided EPS wasn’t recyclable, a broad coalition consisting of foam food-service manufacturers and recyclers, individual restaurant owners from all five boroughs and the New York RAA filed a lawsuit in April 2015 against Mayor de Blasio, Sanitation Commissioner Garcia and the DSNY.

In September 2015, the New York State Supreme Court overturned the city’s PS foam ban. The ruling from Judge Margaret Chan states that the “one undisputed short answer to whether EPS is recyclable is yes: single-serve EPS is recyclable.”

The judge also criticized the city’s leading sanitation official, calling the EPS ban an “arbitrary and capricious” decision.

The city then filed a motion to appeal Judge Chan’s decision, which was denied in December.

making FINANCIAL SENSE

Fred Read, general manager of Plastic Recycling, says, “When you see what’s happening in New York City, I just don’t understand. The statements that people in New York City are making that this can’t be done? Well, we’re doing it, why are you saying that?”

He adds, “We want to show everyone that EPS and PS rigid foam, all of it can be manufactured into usable products.”

One of Plastic Recycling’s extruders. Image: Plastic Recycling Inc.

3M uses Plastic Recycling’s recycled resins to manufacture various products, Toshiba makes toner cartridges, another customer makes egg cartons and one of its customers creates picture frames for Wal-Mart, he says.

If New York City accepts Dart and Plastic Recycling’s offer to get the ball rolling on implementing curbside PS foam recycling, Read says the city’s collected EPS material would be recycled into plastic cores for cash register tape and sold to the paper industry through Plastic Recycling’s sister company, Recycling Technologies Inc., Indianapolis.

Even if the city decides not to take up Dart and Plastic Recycling on their offer to cover equipment and transportation costs related to EPS recycling, Westerfield says a Feb. 24, 2016, report shows that foam recycling can be profitable for a material recovery facility (MRF) the size of Sunset Park.

According to “Curbside Recycling: Tradeoffs, Allocated Costs and the Cost-effectiveness of Adding Materials,” prepared by Skumatz Economic Research Associates (SERA), Superior, Colorado, “Recovery of PS appears to be profitable, even without industry investment, as least in situations in which the market price is at least $160 per ton.”

The study even goes as far as stating, “PS … is more profitable than some other materials that are traditionally processed in single-stream MRFs. Depending on which model is referenced, PS appears more profitable to process than glass, aseptic, some paper categories and, in some cases, possibly ferrous and PET (polyethylene terephthalate).”

Westerfield says,“Not only would it not cost the city a penny, but it would generate revenue for them, too. And their taxpayers pay the landfill fees, so it’s a net benefit for the taxpayer.

“Plastic Recycling Inc. wants to buy the [PS foam] material; they need it,” he continues.

“The only logical conclusion is the political decision is not based on what’s best for the environment, taxpayers, restaurants or the city; it’s only better for politics,” Westerfield says.

“Our offer stands,” Westerfield adds. “We’re happy to do it, but the mayor’s office refuses to do it. That’s the frustrating part.”

Read says, “We can use 100 percent of New York City’s polystyrene … and still have opportunities out in the sales arena for more products.”

Fast Fact: Plastic Recycling Inc. can process a dirty bale of EPS into a clean product in 30 minutes.

In the end, the choice to recycle single-service PS foam food-service articles through the city’s existing curbside recycling infrastructure is up to New York City officials.

Westerfield says Dart has not purchased any equipment for the Sunset Park MRF because it has not been given the green light from city officials that PS foam will be recycled.

In the meantime, Plastic Recycling’s new facility in Indianapolis is up and running, processing PS foam from other sources across the country, while single-use EPS food-service articles generated in New York City’s five boroughs continue to be buried in landfills.

“The whole mindset that New York City is saying something that isn’t true, it bothers me that that’s happening. We are doing it, it’s a proven concept,” Read says of PS foam recycling.

As of press time, Mayor de Blasio’s office did not respond to an interview request.

The author is associate editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted at mworkman@gie.net.