The expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam industry has been under attack, facing gross misrepresentation and city-wide bans. The anti-foam sentiment has become increasingly widespread in recent months with politicians and environmentalists ignoring facts and simply instituting bans for political effects. The reality of the situation: recycling foam is smart, economically feasible and an environmentally sound alternative to a ban. Bans not only threaten American jobs and strain local businesses, they are not as effective as improving the environment as their supporters would like to think.
New York became the largest city to ban EPS when it announced the measure at the first of the year. Similar bans preceded it in more than 100 other U.S. jurisdictions—including Washington, DC; Portland, Maine; and San Francisco, California. Local governments in these areas believe that foam is too contaminated and lacks a market to be recycled. But when one examines the situation more closely, it is clear that the misinformation fueling the bans is the result of the tendency to rely on the popular political move, rather than fact.
Contamination of recyclable materials is not a unique problem to polystyrene foam. Ban supporters claim that because foam containers are widely used for food products that they present a unique problem. However, contamination is a problem across all recyclable products, even the foam alternatives.
The best way to combat contamination is for collectors and processors to work together to make sure that all items are cleaner when recycled. Dart Container a leader in EPS foam manufacturing has been cleaning and processing “dirty” foam at two of its existing foam recycling facilities. Dart had also offered to help foot the bill for NYC to implement a full-fledged foam recycling program that would allow the city to take advantage of Dart’s knowledge of foam cleaning techniques utilized in other parts of the country; however, Mayor De Blasio refused the offer.
Other than contamination issues, critics charge that few markets exist for recycled foam. The critics are sorely mistaken. Not only is there a market for foam, but North America is leading the growth, showing an 8% increase in demand in 2014. The research firm Markets and Markets, located in Dallas, Texas, predicts the global EPS foam market will experience a compound annual growth rate of 8.2% through 2018. The increase is largely attributed to an upswing in the North American construction industry along with North America’s gains is packaging foam—particularly appliances and electronics.
In conclusion, the hope for the future is that cities consider the facts before instituting foam bans. A ban simply transfers the problem to another medium and doesn’t improve the environment or help local businesses the way recycling does. Based on polystyrene’s safety, resolvable contamination issues, and rapid growth in marketability, instituting a foam recycling program is the clear solution.