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New York reinstates ban on polystyrene food packaging

New York has announced it is to ban the use of expanded polystyrene (EPS) by restaurants and retailers, just two years after the same ban was lifted.

Following the release of a comprehensive determination last week (12 May) detailing the New York Department of Sanitation’s (DSNY) findings regarding the non-recyclability of EPS, the department has reasserted its support for a return of the ban, which will come into effect from November.

The same ban was approved in 2013 but only came into effect in mid-2015 (1 July), and was later overturned by Supreme Court Judge Margaret Chan in September 2015 after she found that a coalition of recycling firms and plastics manufacturers had produced a feasible recycling plan for the polystyrene containers.

The decision to reinstate the ban comes after an opposing bill proposition, Intro. 1480, was heard before the City Council, proposing that EPS should be deemed recyclable and should be included in DSNY’s kerbside collections.

The bill was supported by the Restaurant Action Alliance and the Dart Container Corporation, a polystyrene container manufacturer, and was carried forward by Councilman Fernando Cabrera, one of a dozen City Council members who received campaign contributions from the wife of the Dart CEO back in 2013 at the time the first ban was being debated. Dart had also offered to subsidise the costs of sorting and processing EPS through DSNY's kerbside programme.

Testifying in opposition to Cabrera’s bill and reaffirming the DSNY’s position, Sanitation Department Commissioner Kathryn Garcia stated: "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."

Provided the ban is not overturned again, there will be a six-month grace period from the instatement of the ban, before issuing fines for non-compliance. This means that EPS products will be banned from 13 November 2017, with violations issued from 14 May 2018. San Francisco, Seattle and Washington D.C. all already have standing bans on polystyrene packaging.

An ‘unsightly and environmentally damaging method of packaging’

Opposition to polystyrene recycling among some quarters is extensive, though the debate over whether it can be recycled or not continues. The issue is not restricted to the US, with a group of London chefs last year calling on London Mayor Sadiq Khan to ban polystyrene packaging in the capital, calling it an ‘unsightly and environmentally damaging method of packaging’.

This position was rejected, however, by the Recycling Association, who stated that the material was 100 per cent recyclable, calling on restaurants to do more to facilitate its recycling.

The DSNY’s determination report states that polystyrene compacts when loaded onto collection trucks, where it breaks into smaller pieces and becomes contaminated with food waste, making it impossible to recycle once it reaches material recovery facilities (MRFs). It also says that it can contaminate other valuable recycling streams, such as paper, and is costly to clean and process properly.

Commenting on the reinstatement of the ban, Michael Westerfield, Corporate Director of Recycling Programs for Dart, said: “Today’s declaration by isn’t just inconsistent with Judge Chan’s ruling. It’s wrong for struggling small businesses, restaurants and taxpayers — and it will actually make it harder for the city to meet Mayor de Blasio’s OneNYC goal of Zero Waste by 2030."

For more information on the DSNY’s stance, you can view the Department’s determination report on the New York City Council website.

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