Foam: Better to Recycle or Ban?

Americans throw away some 25 billion Styrofoam cups annually, according to the EPA. Five centuries from now, foam coffee cups and other Styrofoam will still be taking up space in landfills. (istock)

Americans throw away some 25 billion Styrofoam cups annually, according to the EPA. Five centuries from now, foam coffee cups and other Styrofoam will still be taking up space in landfills. (istock)

Critics say Rhode Island’s new limited Styrofoam recycling program could hinder future efforts to ban the material.

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

JOHNSTON, R.I. — Food-service and rigid-packaging polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam, is now recyclable in Rhode Island. This material still isn’t accepted in curbside recycling bins, but is recycled when properly sorted and driven to the Central Landfill’s small-vehicle disposal area.

This new program is the result of a partnership between the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), the state’s waste management agency, and the Dart Container Corp., a large foodservice packaging manufacturer. Dart Container manages or partners on 85 Styrofoam drop-off locations nationwide.

RIRRC stores foam delivered to its drop-off location in large containers, according to Christine Cassidy, recycling manager for Dart Container. About once a month, Dart Container collects the foam from RIRRC — using a delivery truck already in the area — and backhauls the material to its manufacturing and recycling facility in Leola, Pa. The foam is turned into pellets, then sold to manufacturers of non-food-grade items such as picture frames or crown molding.

The foam recycling program has been surprisingly popular, according to Sarah Kite, RIRRC’s director of recycling services. When the program launched earlier this year, foam was stored in a single container, but a second container was soon added to keep up with the amount of Styrofoam being delivered to the Central Landfill, Kite said.

More foam could be collected if the recycling program were marketed to businesses that generate high volumes of foam waste, Kite said. That said, RIRRC is hesitant to expand the program because there is a limit to how much foam Dart Container can haul. If too much foam is collected, the program could be overwhelmed, she said.

Despite its popularity, the new program only diverts a small fraction of Rhode Island’s Styrofoam from the landfill because it relies on people driving this waste to a solitary drop-off location.

“Ideally, we would have more drop-off locations,” said Kite, noting that such an expansion would require a local foam recycler or hauler. For now, the program’s expansion is dependent on Dart Container’s capacity to backhaul foam from Rhode Island to Pennsylvania, she said.

Rhode Island’s new Styrofoam recycling program doesn’t accept packing peanuts and spongy foam, and foodservice foam, such as coffee cups and food trays, must be bagged separately. (RIRRC)

Rhode Island’s new Styrofoam recycling program doesn’t accept packing peanuts and spongy foam, and foodservice foam, such as coffee cups and food trays, must be bagged separately. (RIRRC)

Recycling foam
Styrofoam is about 95 percent air, which makes it inexpensive to produce and ship, and attractive to companies that need cheap food packaging or lightweight packaging to protect products during shipping.

This fact also makes foam unattractive to recycle. Foam can be recycled, but collecting it and transporting it to a recycling facility is generally not economical for haulers — after all, they’re transporting mostly air. According to Dart Container’s website, the recyclable material in a full 48-foot-long trailer of loose foam only weighs about a thousand pounds.

Foam densifiers, which compact foam significantly, can help with the economics of transporting foam to recycling facilities, but Rhode Island’s new recycling program doesn’t utilize such a machine.

Financially, Dart Container generally breaks even on backhauling Rhode Island foam to its facility in Pennsylvania, according to Cassidy. She said the company’s interest in the program is more altruistic. “(As) one of the leading manufacturers of foam food material, we want to be socially responsible,” she said.

Brookline ban
Clint Richmond, volunteer co-chair of the Green Caucus of Brookline Town Meeting Members, isn’t convinced of Dart Container’s altruism. Richmond was involved in the 2012 effort that succeeded in banning rigid and foam polystyrene foodservice products in Brookline, Mass. He said the effort to ban polystyrene in Brookline arose after the Department of Health and Human Services determined that styrene is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” and can leach into food and beverages from polystyrene containers.

“It is a harmful material, and it is being made into a product to store food,” Richmond said.

Opponents of polystyrene bans claim this accusation, while true, is misleading. Polystyrene food containers haven’t been directly linked to cancer or other human health complications, they say. In 2012, Alan Balsam, Brookline’s director of public health, agreed with opponents of the ban on this issue while maintaining an otherwise neutral position.

Richmond also cited environmental concerns related to polystyrene in favor of the ban, including its negative impact on ecosystems when it is inevitably littered, and the space it occupies in landfills.

Representatives from Dart Container and Dunkin’ Donuts were among those who lobbied against Brookline’s ban. They argued that disposable polystyrene products would be replaced by other disposable products, resulting in little impact on overall waste. Dart Container also refuted health concerns and claimed that polystyrene is more environmentally friendly than its alternatives, because it requires less resources and energy to produce, and it doesn’t biodegrade and release methane in landfills the way paper and compostable alternatives do.

Richmond, however, claimed Dart Container is more concerned with its bottom line, than it is with the waste stream, energy use or greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Dart is not supportive of polystyrene bans because they want to protect that portion of their business,” he said.

Richmond believes Dart Container will use Rhode Island’s limited foam recycling program as ammunition against a future attempt to ban the material in the state.

Dart Container and Dunkin’ Donuts each used the recyclability of polystyrene as a talking point in their 2012 testimonies against Brookline’s Styrofoam ban. Christine Riley Miller, senior director of corporate social responsibility at Dunkin’ Donuts, cited a soon-to-be-launched pilot in-store foam-cup recycling program.

Ray Ehrlich, regional manager of government affairs and the environment at Dart Container, testified that foam is 100 percent recyclable. “Is it recycled? Yes it is — on a limited basis,” he said.

Earlier this year, Dart Container filed a lawsuit against New York City, after foam polystyrene was banned by the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio. The administration said foam is too difficult to recycle and therefore favored a ban. Dart Container’s lawsuit is based on the premise that recycling is the answer to foam waste, not an outright ban.

“Usually, when bans come up, the main issue is that foam cannot be recycled, but we have been recycling it for 25 years,” said Cassidy, during a recent interview with ecoRI News.

With the right local infrastructure, recycling foam can be profitable, and demand for recycled foam is high among manufacturers, she said.

Cassidy also argued that bans primarily focus on food-grade foam, such as foam cups, but leave the problem of foam from items such as electronics packaging unaddressed. A recycling program, she said, addresses both types.

Ban the bag
Advocates of reducing plastic waste in Rhode Island experienced similar arguments during recent campaigns to ban plastic shopping bags statewide. Since 2013, a bill to “ban the bag” has been introduced. Each year, opponents have used the state’s existing recycling program as a talking point to prevent the bill from passing.

In 2013, RIRRC opposed the ban, arguing that it would undermine the statewide storefront bag recycling program. The next year, RIRRC switched its position to neutral, but Kite offered oral testimony in support of the recycling program during a Senate committee hearing.

During that same hearing, Sen. Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield, stressed improving the state’s recycling efforts over a ban. “Is there an intermediate step on recycling, short of banning plastic bags and wiping out a whole industry that (can be implemented)?” he asked.

Kite continued to favor recycling plastic bags instead of banning them, when interviewed for this story. She maintained that the recycling program is popular, based on her personal observations of storefront bag recycling bins, and the decrease in plastic bags blowing around the Central Landfill.

“The problem is not what it was ten years ago,” she said. “Recycling capability is improved, reusable bags have become established, people are more aware, so they don't take 30 bags per shopping trip, and they reuse them.”

Meanwhile, enforcement of a ban — likely overseen by an already strapped-for-cash Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management — would be ineffective, Kite said.

According to supporters of a plastic shopping bag ban, most plastic bags don’t get recycled. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 12 percent of plastic bags and plastic wrap are recycled. Rhode Island doesn’t track its bag recycling rate, according to Kite.

Channing Jones, former campaign manager for Environment Rhode Island, led the “ban the bag” effort in 2013 and 2014. In a recent interview, he said that while RIRRC and lobbyists from the plastic-bag industry used the recyclability of plastic bags as reasons to oppose a ban, it wasn’t a central issue. Ban opponents were more concerned with limiting consumer choice and increasing costs for local businesses, he said.

“I wouldn’t say the recycling program was a major obstacle or a main opposition weapon, though it was a small obstacle,” he said. “Our message in the bag-ban effort didn't focus on whether plastic bags are recyclable or not, but on the fact that so many end up as debris, especially in aquatic environments. The debris problem is due to plastic bags being littered rather than disposed of, and it's irrelevant whether they're recyclable or not.”

RIRRC hasn’t considered what its position would be regarding a Styrofoam ban, according to Kite. Some factors that would go into such a decision would include enforcement, recyclability, the type of ban — food packaging foam or something more comprehensive — and whether it would be banned from the landfill or restrict merchants from using foam products at their stores, she said.

Currently, the regional infrastructure for recycling foam isn’t as robust as it was for recycling plastic bags when the bag ban was first introduced, Kite said.