NJ Schools Make Efforts To Ban Styrofoam Food Containers

Styrofoam has long been used as a lightweight, easy-to-hold hot food container found everywhere from Chinese food joints to supermarket buffets. 

But the container has also become the worst form of litter - the kind that spreads everywhere and never goes away.

Polystyrene foam doesn’t biodegrade. It can break into small pieces and is transported far distances by wind or water. And while it is recyclable, only a few towns will pick them up curbside and most recycling centers won’t accept food containers.

With New York City poised to ban these containers after battles with the plastics industry, efforts are underway to curb their use in New Jersey, including a bipartisan bill that would ban them from public schools and state colleges.

“The negatives are pretty obvious with these containers,” said Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, who drafted the bill. “It’s something that we don’t need. There are plenty of other alternatives.”

A few New Jersey municipalities have gone further and banned foam containers. This includes Jersey City, Rahway and Secaucus, which passed the bans in 2011 after complaints of foam containers polluting the town's Hackensack River waterfront. 

Dart Container Corporation, one of the biggest manufacturers of polystyrene products, has fought vigorously against New York City’s ban and tried to persuade Secaucus to retract its ban.

"You sit at these town council meetings and what's getting said is wildly inaccurate," said Michael Westerfield, a spokesman for Dart, which is based in Michigan. "The number one misconception is that foam is not recyclable. It's absolutely recyclable." 

The bill is one of several efforts by New Jersey officials to place restrictions on plastic use.

Bills are making their way through Trenton that would impose a fee on thin, grocery store bags that, like Styrofoam, have become the poster child of everyday litter. And several municipalities have recently banned the intentional release of balloons, saying they are an unsightly nuisance and a threat to wildlife when they eventually come back to earth. 

But Styrofoam may be a bigger problem than all other kinds of plastics pollution. 

Polystyrene foam used in food containers, coffee cups, packing peanuts and other products were the most common pieces of plastic collected from the region’s waterways in a 2016 study by NY/NJ Baykeeper. It accounted for 38 percent of the 6,900 pieces taken from the Passaic River, Newark Bay and the lower Hudson River. The group supports Singleton’s legislation. 

“The bill is a no-brainer and low hanging fruit compared to other litter prevention legislation,” said Sandra Meola, of NY/NJ Baykeeper, who led the plastics in the water report. “It's bipartisan and doesn't have a fee attached to it.”

Westerfield, of Dart Container, would not comment on the bill because he said he hasn't reviewed it. 

New York City instituted a ban on foam containers in 2015, but a court stopped it after a coalition of business groups sued. The city said this month that it will reinstate the ban beginning this fall.  To bolster its argument, city officials issued a report arguing that foam containers cannot be recycled in an economical way.

Westerfield said an Indianapolis-based recycling company is willing to take New York's soiled Styrofoam because the city produces so much of it. "They have critical mass in New York," he said. "It would make economic sense to everybody."

That doesn't seem to be the case in New Jersey where recycling is done mostly by each of its 566 municipalities.

Only a few towns like Bloomfield and Maplewood offer curbside pickups of polystyrene. And while there are 19 places in New Jersey to drop off polystyrene packaging materials, only one place in the state, Foam Pack Industries in Springfield, accepts clean food containers, according to the Expanded Polystyrene Industry Alliance. 

Like most any recyclable materials, the polystyrene containers must be clean in order to be broken down by processing machines. Most recycling centers won't accept any food containers because it will inevitably contain some soiled Styrofoam. And Foam Pack Industries will only accept white containers because their customers often want to dye the recycled material for other uses, such as decking material or picture frames.

But the biggest factor holding back curbside recycling is cost. Polystyrene foam is 95 percent air, making it very expensive for municipalities to collect and transport, said Wayne DeFeo, an environmental consultant who often advises towns and counties on recycling.  A recycling truck full of Styrofoam cannot fetch anywhere the price of recycled metal, glass or paper products.

“It takes up a lot of room but essentially it’s all air,” DeFeo said. “Moving it around becomes very expensive. You’re going to lose money every time.”

Although there are machines called densifiers that can melt Styrofoam into much more compact pieces, DeFeo said it is not yet practical to install them onto a town recycling truck. 

The ban in Secaucus has made a difference, with large chain restaurants like Outback Steakhouse phasing out Styrofoam. But Bill Sheehan, director of the Hackensack Riverkeeper environmental group, said he still sees a lot of styrofoam pollution in the river and advocates for a regional ban to curb the pollution more effectively.

Singleton said he’s pushing Assembly leadership to get his bill to the floor for a vote this summer before the start of the school year. He expects support from both sides of the aisle considering Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce, a Republican from Morris County, is a co-sponsor.

Singleton sponsored the bill after being lobbied not by environmentalists, but by a group of grade school children from Palmyra in his South Jersey district.

“They expressed the harmful impacts better than most anyone else could,” Singleton said. “They don’t biodegrade. They’re toxic to animals. And they litter everywhere.” 

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