State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Say Goodbye to Styrofoam

By Sara Louie

On July 1, single-use styrofoam products will cease to be in circulation in New York City due to a new regulation. In the last year of Mayor Bloomberg’s final term in office, Bloomberg made it his last mission to rid New York City of the non-biodegradable material. This January, after the Department of Sanitation concluded that there are no viable means of recycling and reusing styrofoam materials, Mayor DeBlasio announced the new law. The ban, which will be implemented in all five boroughs, will require that no manufacturer or business sell, give or use any single-use styrofoam product including coffee cups, foam trays and packing materials like packing peanuts.

Banning styrofoam in all its various shapes and forms will mean “removing nearly 30,000 tons of…waste from our landfills, streets, and waterways,” according to a statement from DeBlasio. While it will mean an addition of waste in paper or other plastics, it will decrease the overall amount of garbage going into landfills since we do know how to recycle and have means of reusing the post-consumer products of the other materials. The United States generates a total waste of 250.9 million tons per year, according to EPA data from 2012. This is trash not being recycled or repurposed. Earth Institute Executive Director Steven Cohen makes a valuable point that banning styrofoam is a sign that New Yorkers are caring more about their environment and the waste that they are producing. This ban will raise awareness about the large amount of waste produced by the city and promote a shift in habits in even more New Yorkers.

Styrofoam is made of styrene, a liquid hydrocarbon that retains its shape after being heated and cooled. It’s use originated in creating hard plastic items, but in 1941, scientist Ray McIntyre invented a way to create a lightweight, waterproof variant of the plastic called extruded polystyrene. A similar form called expanded polystyrene was created to be 95% air and is what styrofoam is made out of today. Photo Credit: Sara Louie

To be sure, removing 30,000 tons of styrofoam materials/objects out of circulation is not something that can easily happen overnight and without protest. It will require the cooperation of manufacturers, businesses, and the population to change their habits. The ruling to ban styrofoam comes after a year long investigation by the sanitation department looking into a safe, economically viable way to recycle and reuse post-consumption products. In December 2013 when Local Law 142 was passed and required that the recycling of styrofoam be investigated, the sanitation department talked to businesses and companies about possibly doing so.

In order to sustainably use styrofoam, a non-biodegradable product that fills up our landfills and that is made from the non-renewable resource crude oil, it needs to be recyclable and reusable in its post-consumer form. The process to recycle styrofoam requires that it is clean and free of any dirt, food, liquid, other forms of plastic, and other materials. From there it is ground up and treated with heat and friction to remove all air. It is then melted and cooled into plastic pellets that can be used to manufacture other products. Unfortunately, there are very few plants that have the capability of processing styrofoam, and there is no current market for post-consumer expanded polystyrene in the tri-state area.

Styrofoam structurally is a plastic, specifically Type 6, according to the seven different classifications of plastic. Plastic cutlery, coat hangers, video cases and some toys are all made of Type 6 plastic, but styrofoam is the hardest form of Type 6 plastic to recycle. The reason comes down to its structural properties. Because of its brittleness, it is difficult to clean and remove from other materials without resulting in a jumbled mess of styrofoam particles. Being 95 percent air, styrofoam is lightweight and is easily carried away by gusts of wind, allowing it to get into areas it should not be. In New York City, this includes clogging storm drains, littering streets and beaches, and drifting off into waterways that affect aquatic life. Expanded polystyrene also takes up much more space than normal polystyrene does, and since there are very few treatment plants that can handle recycling polystyrene, it is not economically nor environmentally efficient to transport styrofoam to those facilities.

Alternative Packaging Materials 

The ban of styrofoam will require changes in purchasing habits of restaurants, school cafeterias, food carts and other businesses. Here are some of the ways segments of the city are looking towards alternative packaging products.

New York City public schools serve around 850,000 students for breakfast and/or lunch every school day. Typically, lunches were provided on styrofoam trays that are lightweight and could handle the heat and liquids of any particular meal. With the new regulation, schools will begin shifting to compostable plates in May and be completely styrofoam-free by the summer.

Many companies and businesses have already started researching and experimenting with new materials. Dunkin Donuts, famous for the styrofoam cups that keep coffee warm for hours, is looking into a double-walled paper cup. Other possible alternatives are recyclable plastics and reusable tumblers, although those are not as popular to many customers who like the styrofoam.

The ban on packing “peanuts” and other styrofoam packing products may not be truly felt in New York City outside of the businesses that package goods. The ban does not regulate outside of New York jurisdiction and states where goods can still be packaged with styrofoam and shipped into the city. The decision on what packaging material works best is greatly influenced by its cost to manufacture and ship. An option, biodegradable packing peanuts, can be made out of corn or wheat and beneficially have no electrostatic charge and dissolve in water. Unfortunately they have a higher cost to make and are heavier than styrofoam peanuts. Other alternative materials are plastic air bags, paper stuffing, and a styrofoam-like material made out of mushrooms.

For now, the styrofoam ban will be imperfect until it is phased out in the surrounding areas. Styrofoam will still exist in the city from incoming shipments, albeit much less will be in trashcans overall. The ban also will allow for small businesses (less than $500,000 revenue per year) to apply for exemptions granted that the alternative containers would cause “undue financial hardship.” The ban follows several cities’ decisions including Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Albany and Seattle.

Interested in learning more? The Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability is offering a course entitled Introduction to Environmental Policy on Mondays, May 11, 18, June 1, 8, and 15th, 2015 as part of the Certificate Program in Conservation and Environmental Sustainability. For more information or to register, please contact

Sara Louie is an intern at The Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability and studies Sustainable Development and Digital Media at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College.

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