Author: John S Szalasny
As we celebrate Earth Day 2019, the City of Buffalo is considering legislation to ban Expanded Polystyrene (Plastic Foam) Food Packaging (commonly known by the trademark name Styrofoam®). Over 90 percent of plastics never get recycled and Expanded Polystyrene makes up large percentage of that amount.
With New York State’s recent passage of the Plastic Carryout Bag Prohibition, another largely unrecycled stream of plastics will be removed from our waste stream. Like the plastic bag, Expanded Polystyrene Food Packaging is not recyclable through municipal recycling programs. Unlike the plastic bag, there is no drop off program (or a recycling center in New York State) for used Expanded Polystyrene Food Packaging. In review for their current ban, New York City’s Department of Sanitation determined that “Expanded Polystyrene single serve articles were not recyclable in an “economically feasible” and “environmentally effective” way.” Expanded Polystyrene is 98 percent air, so even though it contributes less than 1 percent by weight to waste collections, it contributes 30 percent by volume to landfills that are rapidly reaching its capacity limits.
Waste issues are big. But, if you think about litter, you usually have an image of Expanded Polystyrene in your head. However, the issue doesn’t stop with the empty cup or clamshell food container. If you’ve ever held an Expanded Polystyrene container, you know how easy it is to crush. Even when properly disposed, foam containers easily break down into small pieces when compacted in a garbage truck, allowing small pieces to blow away to settle on land and waterways. These small pieces look like food to animals causing animals to starve while their stomachs are filled with polystyrene or other plastics.
Councilman David Franczyk says the City of Buffalo nearly passed a Styrofoam ban in 1990.
Litter issues are huge. But, the health impacts may be even worse. When your hot beverage or to go lunch is served in an Expanded Polystyrene container, the heat causes the product to leach toxic chemicals such as benzene and styrene into your drink and food. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared styrene a very possible human carcinogen (making Expanded Polystyrene the only food packaging item made from a suspected carcinogen); other studies have linked the two chemicals to Parkinson’s Disease as well as Leukemia. No matter how you spin it, you are ingesting a petroleum bi-product (now predominately made from natural gas from hydrofractured wells) every time you consume from these containers when heated.
Heath issues are immense. But, if we came back to Earth 500 years from now, we would still see intact Styrofoam cups and containers in our landfills. Polystyrene breaks down primarily through photodegration. Being buried in a landfill, foam containers never have access to sunlight. But if it did, Expanded Polystyrene does not break down into less harmful components – it breaks down into smaller and smaller bits. As these microplastics wash away from the landfill and enter the watershed, they will flow into our lakes and oceans affecting our drinking water and aquatic habitats.
Recently, Suffolk County joined New York City and Albany and Ulster counties in banning Single Use Plastic Foam Food Packaging from use within its jurisdiction. The New York State Legislature is also considering a similar ban for state operated facilities, so action by the City of Buffalo will have many communities to look to as a model for legislation. Restaurants, on a local as well as a national level, have been able to make the switch from foam to more ecologically friendly containers. The City of Buffalo should institute an Expanded Polystyrene Food Packaging ban for the economic reasons as well as health issues that can be avoided with a ban on Styrofoam®.
This recent effort started through a campaign Bring NYC’s Styrofoam Ban to My Hometown! which was recently started for the Sierra Club Niagara Group.
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