On July 1, 2015, New York City banned disposable Styrofoam single-serve containers under Local Law 142. The Mayor’s office estimated that the ban would keep up to 30,000 tons of waste from landfills and waterways, which is a lot considering how light Styrofoam is. That April, the Dart Container Corp and Restaurant Action Alliance NYC, among other companies, sued the city over the proposed ban, arguing that Styrofoam (otherwise known as polystyrene foam or E.P.S.) is recyclable. Dart Container Corp even offered to “pay every dime of the start-up costs for recycling” EPS. But the ban went through. On September 22nd, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chan overturned the ban, again on the basis that EPS is recyclable.

Why the fuss? Why the power struggle that seems to pivot on whether a foamed plastic is recyclable or not?

The answer, not surprisingly, is profit. Industry saves money, and thus widens its profit margins, through the creation of disposables. Disposables are only environmentally acceptable if they are recycled. Except they aren’t.

Industry Invents Environmental Recycling

The seemingly generous offer by industry to underwrite the costs of recycling goes back to the 1970s when recycling was first popularized as an environmental good, though the practice had existed long before. A large producer of recycled paperboard, the Container Corporation of America, sponsored the competition to design the first recycling symbol. They were invested in recycling because it was exponentially cheaper than the other alternatives that an increasingly environmentally minded public was requesting in the 1960s and 70s, such as reuse or the end of disposables (see Ackerman 1997, MacBride 2011, Liboiron 2013). In 2010, the American Chemistry Council, a lobby for the plastics industry, testified enthusiastically in favor of expanding New York City’s recycling program. Since the 1970s, industry consistently champions recycling because it is profitable. If a company has reusable bottles, for example, it has to pay for those bottles to return, but if it makes cheap disposables, municipalities pick up the bill for running them to the landfill or recycling station. The money industry saves can translate into profit because waste costs are “externalized” into the public realm (Robertson 2011). Externalization is integral to profit. Accordingly, industry spends a great deal of money, energy, and creativity making recyclables into beacons of environmentality so they continue to circulate as “green” externalities, thereby shifting responsibility to consumers and local government.

The Problems with Recycling

Yet, recycling isn’t necessarily good for the environment, especially as it currently operates (Royte 2007, Liboiron 2010, MacBride 2011, Ackerman 1997). While some recycling processes reduce the amount of raw material needed to create a new object, recycling is an industrial process that produces waste, uses energy, requires virgin (non-recyclable) materials, and often results in down-cycling, where created products are less robust than their predecessors (McDonough and Braungart 2002: 56-60). Moreover, of the fifteen to thirty percent of recyclables that are retrieved from the US waste stream, nearly half are buried or burned due to contamination or market fluctuations that devalue recyclables over virgin materials (Rogers 2006: 176-179). A recent study has estimated that plastics enter the oceans from coastal countries with porous waste management systems, including those we ship our recyclables to, meaning that even if plastics are recycled, they can return to the environment through other pathways (Jambeck et al 2015).

Plastics are especially difficult to recycle because each type of plastic has a different melting point, proprietary chemicals inside, and are expensive to clean and sort. This is particularly true for foamed polystyrene, or Styrofoam, which is particularly difficult to clean and is light enough to be caught in recycling machinery and infrastructure regularly. Moreover, because polystyrene leaches the chemical styrene, recycling workers and others in regular occupational contact with the plastic are at an increased risk of negative health effects from the material (Flodin et al 1989, Kolstad et al 1995, Macaluso 1996, Cohen et al 2002).

The question should be, “Is this a good idea? Does it cause harm?” not, “Is this recyclable?”

Polystyrene is technically recyclable. Absolutely. It is not cost effective, but technically you can downcycle the plastic into cafeteria trays or packing peanuts. This is the technicality upon which the City of New York was sued by industry, and by which Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chan overturned the ban. But the question should not be whether or not the plastic is able, in a perfect, on-paper world to be recycled, even if 100% of it were captured (unlikely, especially given North America’s incredibly low recycling rates, and actually impossible, because even if everyone put it in recycling bis, it blows out of bins, trucks, and transfer stations and into water because it is so light). The question should be whether it is a good idea to have it in the first place given how it actually operates in the world. It leaches chemicals. It escapes waste infrastructure and ends up in waterways and oceans. It is not economically or practically feasible to recapture and recycle, which isn’t environmentally friendly anyhow. And most importantly, it keeps those disposables coming. 

In 1956, Lloyd Stouffer, editor of Modern Packaging Inc., famously and controversially  declared: “The future of plastics is in the trash can” (Stouffer 1963: 1). Let’s make that a controversial statement again. The City of New York is looking to reverse the reversal on the ban.

Microplastics smaller than 5mm recovered from the surface Mystic River, Boston, in September 2015. There is a high incidence of polystyrene. Image by Max Liboiron.

Microplastics smaller than 5mm recovered from the surface Mystic River, Boston, in September 2015. There is a significant incidence of polystyrene. Image by Max Liboiron.

Dr. Max Liboiron is an Assistant Professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland whose research focuses on the science and advocacy behind plastic pollution. 

Works Cited:

Ackerman, F. (1997). Why do We Recycle?: markets, values, and public policy. Island Press.

Cohen, J. T., Carlson, G., Charnley, G., Coggon, D., Delzell, E., Graham, J. D., … & Thompson, K. (2002). A comprehensive evaluation of the potential health risks associated with occupational and environmental exposure to styrene.Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health Part B: Critical Reviews, 5(1-2), 1-263.

Flodin, U., Ekberg, K., & Andersson, L. (1989). Neuropsychiatric effects of low exposure to styrene. British journal of industrial medicine, 46(11), 805-808.

Jambeck, J. R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T. R., Perryman, M., Andrady, A., … & Law, K. L. (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the oceanScience, 347(6223), 768-771.

Kolstad, H. A., Juel, K., Olsen, J., & Lynge, E. (1995). Exposure to styrene and chronic health effects: mortality and incidence of solid cancers in the Danish reinforced plastics industry. Occupational and environmental medicine, 52(5), 320-327.

Liboiron, M. (2013). “Modern Waste as Strategy,” Lo Squaderno: Explorations in Space and Society, 29: 9-12.

Liboiron, M. (2010). Recycling as a Crisis of Meaning. Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, Toronto: York and Ryerson Universities.

MacBride, S. (2011).Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States. MIT Press.

McDonough, W. and Braungart, M. (2002). Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things. New York: North Point Press.

Macaluso, M., Larson, R., Delzell, E., Sathiakumar, N., Hovinga, M., Julian, J., … & Cole, P. (1996). Leukemia and cumulative exposure to butadiene, styrene and benzene among workers in the synthetic rubber industry. Toxicology,113(1), 190-202.

Robertson, M. 2011: Measurement and alienation: making a world of ecosystem services. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37, 386–401.

Rogers, H. (2005). Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. New York, London: New Press: Distributed by W.W. Norton & Company.

Royte, E. (2007). Garbage land: On the secret trail of trash. Back Bay Books.

Stouffer, L. 1963: Plastics Packaging: Today and Tomorrow. National Plastics Conference, Chicago: The Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc.