Words by Sarah Logan
Graphics by Aspasia Celia Tsampas
At the start of the new year, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Department of Sanitation decided to ban single-use foam packaging. Owners of big chains and small local restaurants alike were given six months to find an alternative. On June 30th of this year, the law came into effect, changing the way that many New Yorkers see Styrofoam packaging.
Many people believe that Styrofoam is recyclable because it says so on its packaging, but the recycling symbol with the number six placed inside can be deceiving; the NYC Sanitation Department will not accept foam plastic containers. These include Styrofoam cups, takeout containers, packing peanuts and packaging blocks. The foam objects placed into the recycling bins will inversely be placed into the garbage and start their journey to a landfill. At the landfill, it will hardly decompose and likely maintain its form for thousands of years.
Styrofoam is made from polystyrene and hydrofluorocarbon. Polystyrene is created by the polymerization of styrene, a petroleum-based product. After this process, polystyrene is then combined with hydrofluorocarbon to create its final foam form. Polystyrene, also known as EPS, is made up of air because of the hydrofluorocarbon agent. However, if Styrofoam it is a plastic, why can’t it be recycled like plastic bottles?
Styrofoam cannot biodegrade like paper products. Biodegradation is the process where microorganisms break down or decompose materials. When placed into moist conditions and surrounded by water, paper cups, bags, and packages will break down within two to six weeks. Styrofoam doesn’t biodegrade, but it does photodegrade. Photodegradation is otherwise known as the process of breakdown by light. A foam’s continuous exposure to light over a period of time will allow it to breakdown after a few years, turning it into a powder. However, foam material isn’t always in direct sunlight, it’s often stored in dark warehouses. While photodegradation may be an option, it doesn’t seem realistic.
While foam can be recycled to make a new product, like a picture frame, this method isn’t financially sensible for New York City. The NYC Department of Sanitation states on its website that foam “cannot be recycled in a manner that is economically feasible, environmentally effective and safe for employees as part of the City’s curbside recycling program.” For this reason, foam cannot be recycled like bottles and instead is deemed to be “trash.”
This new law will enable businesses that use single-use Styrofoam packaging to find an alternative that is environmentally friendly. Many chain restaurants have already implemented this strategy, including Panera and Chipotle. However, this may be a bigger change for smaller restaurants. There are some exceptions, like foam containers used for prepackaged food, containers used to store raw meat and other animal products, and foam blocks used as protective packaging. Kathryn Garcia, NYC’s Sanitation Commissioner, stated in a CBS New York interview that this change is important because foam “is a product where there are a lot of other options, and it pollutes our waterways, it blows around, and it really has nowhere to go.”
With this new ban, the world will see a shift towards greener solutions while making life and eating easy and convenient.