#PlanetOrPlastic: Foam Wars

#PlanetOrPlastic: Foam Wars

I know how much you care about the environment, so I wanted to share with you a recent Politico article that highlights an ongoing #PlanetOrPlastic battle: can we effectively recycle polystyrene foam (aka styrofoam)?

The answer is no. But don’t just take my word for it. The New York City Department of Sanitation, after a two-year exhaustive study, concluded that styrofoam could not be recycled in an economically efficient and environmentally feasible manner. Environmental groups agree: It will wind up in landfills, where it will remain, literally, forever.

That’s why I introduced legislation to close existing loopholes and finally ban the sale of styrofoam food service containers.

Foam is not recyclable, and it doesn’t matter how many times the plastic and styrofoam industry claim otherwise. The responsible choice, the environmentally sustainable choice, and the choice for our kids and for our planet, is to ban foam altogether.

To read more about my bill, and the frustrating history of banning foam in the Council, read the below Politico story by Danielle Muoio.

To stay updated on #PlanetOrPlastic efforts, sign up here.

Brad


 

Controversial foam container bill resurfaces in City Council
By Danielle Muoio

The City Council is again attempting to tackle the rancorous issue of foam food containers — an effort that has revived an industry-led bill that has been widely condemned by the de Blasio administration and environmentalists.

Council Member Fernando Cabrera, a Bronx Democrat, has reintroduced a bill that would deem polystyrene — the foam material often used for holding drinks or takeout food — a recyclable material. The legislation is touted as a way of responsibly handling the waste that currently sits in landfills, but city officials and the environmental community have argued for years the foam containers cannot be effectively recycled.

Still, the premise of Cabrera’s bill, Intro 931, has caused confusion among some who automatically assume that a bill about recycling must be good for the environment. That was the case for Council Member Justin Brannan, a Brooklyn Democrat, who dropped off as a sponsor of the bill last week, just one week after it was first introduced, according to a source close to Brannan.

Brannan is currently signed onto Intro 135, a competing bill sponsored by Council Member Brad Lander that would ban the sale of certain foam containers and has the backing of environmental groups.

Opponents of Intro 931 say Brannan’s confusion highlights how recycling is being used to mislead the public and prevent them from seeing it as an industry-led bill.

“This bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Eric Goldstein, NYC environment director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, referring to Cabrera’s bill. “It’s worse than doing nothing because it would lead the public to believe that something positive is happening when, in fact, that is not the case.”

Intro 931 now has 10 sponsors after losing Brannan’s support. Lander’s bill has 18 sponsors, including Antonio Reynoso, chairman of the Council Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, where both bills have been introduced.

The city first took up the fight to ban polystyrene foam containers in 2013 when it passed Local Law 142, which ruled a ban could take place if the commissioner of the Sanitation Department determines that polystyrene cannot be recycled. DSNY Commissioner Kathryn Garcia ruled in 2015 that the material wasn’t “economically feasible or environmentally effective” to recycle and planned to put a ban into effect. Restaurant Action Alliance, a lobbying group that was formed to oppose the polystyrene ban, sued over Garcia’s decision and a state Supreme Court judge ruled in the company’s favor.

Garcia then conducted a more exhaustive study in re-establishing a foam ban in 2017.

Lander’s bill circumvents the court ruling by taking out language that would require the sanitation commissioner to determine whether the material could technically be recycled. The bill bans the sale of food foam containers.

“That was a very effective poison pill,” Lander said of the stipulation in Local Law 142. “But think about it like this: If you take a used Styrofoam container and put flowers in it and put it on a table, you can prove that that’s ‘recycling.’ ... Everyone who is not on the payroll of the Styrofoam industry has made clear it cannot be recycled.”

Dart Container Corporation, a leading manufacturer of polystyrene foam containers, has been lobbying on behalf of Cabrera’s bill since it was first introduced last year. Dart is also a member of Restaurant Action Alliance.

Dart reported lobbyist contracts in the city of more than $487,000 total in 2017 and so far in 2018 (January through April) it has spent $126,000, hiring Bolton-St. Johns, The Ickes and Enright Group, Park Strategies and former Council Member Robert Jackson, records show.

In each case, they reported lobbying City Council members and staff on local legislation, the foam ban and recycling.

Ariane Dart, wife of Dart Container CEO Robert Dart, gave $9,200 for the 2017 election, according to campaign finance records, including giving $2,750 to Cabrera and $4,950 to then-Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. But Dart’s campaign donations have slowed — all of the donations were in 2015 and 2016 and there are no reported donations in calendar year 2017. (Records are not due for yet for 2018.)

Cabrera said the donations didn’t affect his determination when weighing whether to support the legislation.

“I don’t make decisions based on ... the donations that come in,” Cabrera said, when asked about his financial ties to Dart. “We’re talking about a couple of thousand dollars, I mean, come on.”

Juanita Scarlett, a spokeswoman for Dart Container via Park Strategies, said the recycling bill was not only cost effective for the city, but sound environmental policy that would not harm small businesses.

"We believe this sensible legislation to establish a citywide polystyrene recycling program will have tremendous benefits for the city’s bottom line, support the environment and help reduce costs for ethnic restaurants across the city. 100% of post consumer foam will be recycled, curbside, at no cost to taxpayers and will save the city millions annually," she said in an email. "The legislation to ban foam, by contrast, will continue to impose tremendous fees on the city as it only covers 20 percent of foam products. The other 80 percent will continue to be landfilled at a great cost to the city."

Proponents of Cabrera’s bill contend that there is a market for recycling polystyrene. When a ban was first proposed, Dart Container offered to pay for equipment to sort out polystyrene from other recyclables as an expansion of its Indiana recycling facility for New York’s waste.

“It’s a wise decision and good-use government legislation to make money for the city and we get to recycle it to get it out of the landfills,” Cabrera said. “There is a market for it and people are ready to purchase it.”

But Garcia, in a memo to Mayor Bill de Blasio, said in 2015 that Dart Container’s plan offered little security beyond that five-year window and didn’t guarantee the material wouldn’t ultimately end up in a landfill.

Garcia said attempts to recycle the material have failed, as the containers break into small pieces that cannot be sussed out by sorters and is too costly to clean and process. Even if it is successfully recycled, Garcia said it’s difficult to find a buyer for the product and the material tends to still get sent to a landfill.

“For 30 years, attempts to recycle Food-Service Foam—both subsidized and nonsubsidized attempts — have failed at each step of the recycling process,” Garcia said at a 2017 City Council hearing. “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.”

Environmental groups — including the NRDC and the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance — are also opposed to recycling polystyrene.

Goldstein, of the NRDC, said that New York City would be following in several counties footsteps if it were to enact a ban, including Portland, Baltimore and Albany County.

“This is both a trend and the proven way of addressing this first class environmental nuisance and the only folks, or the primary folks, who are seeking to advance recycling are the manufacturers of these polystyrene foam containers and their allies,” he said.

Cabrera faces an uphill battle in the City Council. When the legislation was first introduced in 2017, it had 22 sponsors, which eventually dwindled down to 16 Council members before stalling. This time around, the bill only has 10 sponsors after losing Brannan’s support.

When asked about the waning support, Cabrera says he is hopeful the legislation will pass muster in the new session.

“Bills that have a tremendous impact. They take time to pass,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lander said Reynoso’s support of Intro 135 is a positive sign and he will be lobbying other Council Members while waiting for it to go up for a hearing.

“I think they are cleverly using environmentally-friendly language on the appearance of recycling to save their toxic plastic product,” Lander said of Intro 931. “[I’m] reaching out to members to make sure members understand that 135 is the environmentally friendly approach.”