Thursday, February 5th, 2015

SPI, Dart Container Offer Recycling Exit Strategy for EPS Plastic Foam Materials

For Dart, a leading manufacturer of single-use foodservice material, among numerous other plastic products, New York City’s decision to ban plastic foam has raised questions, but hasn’t weakened their resolve to correct some of the most pernicious myths about this material.

“We’re still talking about it and determining our next steps,” said Christine Cassidy, recycling manager at Dart Container. “Dart is one of the leading manufacturers of single-use foodservice material and about half of it is foam. We also manufacture paper, rigid plastic and compostable products. If we’re sending it out to customers we want to make sure they have outlets to recover it at the end of the day,” she said.

This commitment to providing end-of-life opportunities for their products doesn’t prevent legislatures like New York’s from acting rashly, or, given the city council’s central assertion, from acting on false information. “A lot of people say it can’t be recycled, like New York did,” Cassidy said, “but that is not true.”

Dart Container’s PS foam recycling support includes collection/shipping containers.

Dart Container’s PS foam recycling support includes collection/shipping containers.

SPI’s Recycling Committee continually aims to combat falsehoods about plastic materials and their recyclability. But in addition to campaigning against misinformation, like the kind on which New York based its EPS ban, the Recycling Committee works to make recycling easier, and more widespread. Most recently it contributed to this effort with its EPS Recycling Equipment Guide, which offers materials recovery facilities (MRFs) across the country a useful tool for purchasing the equipment they need to make EPS recycling a part of their operations.

“It’s not too much equipment,” Cassidy said, offering a counterpoint to EPS recycling opponents who argue that the process is too expensive or too complicated for EPS recycling to go mainstream. The more widespread this equipment becomes at MRFs nationwide, the more easily this material can be recycled through curbside programs, Cassidy added. “With something like curbside recycling, you can add EPS into the bins and it’ll get collected just like paper, plastic and glass, and it’s sorted just like all those other materials at the MRF,” she said, noting that “NYC found adding EPS to their recycling program would not increase mileage or routes on their collection trucks. Haulers typically operate using a certain amount of weight as a threshold. Once a truck has accumulated enough weight, they have to trek to the MRF and drop off what they have. “With foam it’s lightweight so it is able to travel in the unused space on the truck,” Cassidy said. “EPS is only 1 percent of the waste stream.” Like other material bans elsewhere in the country, the good intentions of policymakers don’t exactly translate into real environmental benefits. For example, New York’s ban on foam only applies to foodservice foam, meaning takeout containers and things of that nature, but not egg cartons or meat trays, or the type of foam used to package electronics. “Those aren’t part of the ban,” Cassidy said. “It’s a small fraction of what foam is out there.”

This is an important point. While proponents like the simplicity of material bans, it’s hard to consider them a success when so much material still ends up going to the landfill, rather than to a recycling facility. “They’re really not accomplishing much with the ban,” Cassidy deadpanned. “If they really wanted to do something meaningful, they should have accepted the offer to have it recycled.”

Public education is a great deal of the battle for Dart, and for SPI’s Recycling Committee. “I find that many people do not understand the benefits of foam or that it can be recycled. They usually do not have an alternative once they ban it. Compostable cups are an alternative only if public composting is available and consumer dispose of it in the right way. If not, it is just going to a landfill.” Cassidy said. “You’re saying ban a product that Dart is willing to help the city and municipality recycle, in order to go to a product that you’re going to send to the landfill.”

Laws like New York’s never seem to think beyond the ban; they don’t provide an exit strategy for the material that inevitably comes to take the place when plastic materials are no longer allowed. “If you ban it, what are you going to do with the replacements?” Cassidy said. “Right now many communities don’t have a solution.” All the excitement about material bans seems to drown out that fact; in the long run, whatever material is banned needs to be replaced by something. People won’t start drinking coffee straight from the pot just because they can’t find an EPS cup. The only real solution that provides a plan for what to do with all of these materials at the end of their usefulness is recycling or composting. “New York City only banned a minority of the foam in the city, and they’re landfilling the majority of it,” Cassidy said. “If they went with a recycling program, they’d be able to recycle 100 percent.”

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