Issues Tank: Glen Cove Recycles Styrofoam, Despite Longtime Ban

by Connor Ryan
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Recycling materials.

Connor Ryan

Mayor Bloomberg says benefits of recycling plastic-foam do not outweigh costs.

After being dealt a blow with his large sugary drinks ban, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg continues to hone in on another type of ban — the elimination of all Styrofoam, a material he called “environmentally destructive” and “easily replaceable” in his State of the City address last month.

The Bloomberg administration has said the removal of Styrofoam, which is not biodegradable, would reduce recycling costs and save city taxpayers money. Everything from cups to lunch trays to take-out containers are to be eliminated under the proposal.

But along with most of the mayor’s previously proposed health and environmental initiatives, many have voiced concerns about a citywide ban on plastic-foam.

Jeff Stier, a director at the National Center for Public Policy Research, said in an op-ed in Wednesday’s New York Post “a ban on Styrofoam makes the mayor’s illegal soda ban look perfectly rational by comparison.”

Nicole Acevedo, a native of Glen Cove, Long Island, is not sold on the idea either.

“I’d rather have a Styrofoam cup than have a paper cup that’s not going to get too hot,” Acevedo said as she grasped a plastic-foam cup of hot chocolate inside her local Dunkin’ Donuts. “[A paper cup] is going to break and I’m going to get burned.”

(Dunkin’ Donuts has since declared that a ban on Styrofoam “will not eliminate waste or increase recycling.”)

While Glen Cove would not be affected by Bloomberg’s proposal, it turns out that the city already has a law in place that prohibits food establishments from using or distributing Styrofoam containers. It was established in 1988 under Mayor Donald DeRiggi.

“We have a law, but it’s not really enforced,” Ralph Suozzi, Mayor of Glen Cove, said in a phone interview. “The law was created to address the circumstances of the time, [when] we burned our plastics to generate power for our sewage treatment plant.”

At the time the law was enacted, Glen Cove incinerated its garbage, which provided the city’s sewage system with combustible energy and eliminated the costs of landfilling. Styrofoam was prohibited because it was found that the material was polluting the air.

The incinerator, however, was dismantled in 1992 when the city began landfilling its garbage and recycling, according to Suozzi.

“[The law] was enforced until it no longer became relevant to the burning of waste,” Suozzi said. “It became a moot point when we started recycling.”

But the prohibition of Styrofoam remains on the books. In fact, any Glen Cove food establishment that distributes plastic-foam containers is “liable to a fine of no less than $1,000 nor more than $2,000 or to imprisonment for a period not to exceed 15 days, or both,” according to current city law.

When asked why the outdated Styrofoam law still remains, Suozzi said that while its removal would be “logical,” it is not a top priority.

“Styrofoam is used and it’s a recyclable plastic,” Suozzi said.

The mayor said that any piece of Styrofoam stamped with the number six triangular recycling symbol gets recycled.

New York City’s recycling program, however, does not accept Styrofoam for recycling.

“[It] is virtually impossible to recycle and never biodegrades,” Bloomberg said during his State of the City address. “But it’s not just terrible for the environment. It’s terrible for taxpayers. Styrofoam increases the cost of recycling by as much as $20 per ton, because it has to be removed.”

When questioned about Bloomberg’s statements on the reuse of Styrofoam, Suozzi said he did not have “the set of information [Bloomberg] is referring to.”

“All I know is down here in Glen Cove, under our new garbage contract, which took effect in August of last year, we are recycling Styrofoam that is marked with recyclable symbols,” Suozzi said.

New York City does not recycle Styrofoam not because it is impossible, but because the process of recycling the material is “expensive, unsustainable and not environmentally friendly,” according to the Department of Sanitation’s website.

“Styrofoam is very difficult to recycle unless kept very clean and separate from all other types of plastics,” the website says. “For this reason, New York City and most other cities’ plastics recycling programs do not collect it with commingled recycling.”

Rob Tocchio, a blogger for Keen for Green — an online community of environmental activists, says that while most types of Styrofoam are recyclable there is seemingly no good way to get rid of the plastic-foam.

“Styrofoam is similar to plastic bags in which it takes a very very long time to break down naturally,” Tocchio wrote in a blog post. “It sits in landfills for a very long time. A lot municipal and commercial waste is brought to incinerators in the area. The Styrofoam is then burned. The problem is it can be very toxic when burned and produces very little energy from combustion.”

When asked about his opinion on the practicality of Bloomberg’s proposed ban, Suozzi said it would cause “a very large enforcement problem in a society that uses Styrofoam products everywhere.”

In order for the ban to become law in New York City, it will have to gain the approval of the City Council. Christine Quinn, the Council speaker and recently-announced mayoral candidate, has publicly supported the proposal.

The ban is just one aspect of Bloomberg’s environmental protection plan, which also includes installing more recycling containers on city sidewalks and collecting food waste for composting.

If approved, New York City would join some other large cities, including San Francisco, CA and Seattle, WA, where the use and distribution of plastic-foam containers is illegal.

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