Meet The Brave Entrepreneurs Who Will Save Us From Mayor Mike's Polystyrene Ban

by Brendan O’Connor

Captains of industry, restaurateurs, and members of the New York City Council gathered on the steps of City Hall yesterday in protest. Councilmember Lewis Fidler has a bill, introduced yesterday and supported by Mayor Bloomberg, that would ban the use of polystyrene foam food service products — takeout containers, cups and plates, mostly.

This brave team of polystyrene advocates has strong support. Put A Lid On It NYC, who are sharing facts about the environmental benefits of polystyrene, is funded by the American Chemistry Council, whose mission is “to deliver business value through exceptional advocacy.” There, you can learn that the proposed ban would cost the city $100 million a year, a nice round number. The polystyrene enthusiasts are getting great pick-up: Crain’s, for just one instance, has run their messaging almost verbatim.

This ban, said Norman Edward Brown, the Legislative Director of the New York State Council of Machinists, would eradicate 1500 jobs and would actually cost the city more than $100 million, possibly as much as $200 million! “I haven’t read the study myself,” he said when asked what might bring the total to $200 million. “We’ll be glad to go with the hundred million dollars.”

“The only businessman to lead New York is leading a charge against the marketplace,” said Brown. According to Brown, the market has determined that polystyrene — which is prohibited in Antarctica, and more than a hundred U.S. cities — is an objectively superior material. “The mayor is going out of his way to crush what the market has demanded be done,” he said.

James Reilly, President of Middletown, NY’s Genpak — a food packaging manufacturer — praised polystyrene foam’s functionality and value. “Foam costs less because it uses less energy and less material,” he said. “Heck, it’s 90% air,” he said. “We sell air.”

“The reason people attack foam is because it’s so popular,” Reilly told me after the press conference.

Its “airiness,” not its popularity, is one reason why polystyrene foam is not being considered as a recyclable product. There are only a few plants in the United States that have the capacity to recycle it, and none of them are near New York City. “The transport and processing is expensive, unsustainable, and not environmentally friendly,” says the city. Polystyrene foam already increases the cost of recycling for New Yorkers by as much as $20 per ton, according to the Mayor.

Edward W. Rider, Jr., the VP of engineering at Genpak, told me that shipping costs of the pulp products necessary to manufacture biodegradable material, instead of polystyrene, would be exorbitantly expensive. “More energy costs money, and more energy means more greenhouse gas emissions,” said Rider. “The energy it takes to get that pulp to us, not to speak of how the pulp gets made, is greater than the petroleum we’re using.”

“I mean, we sell air,” said Rider, echoing his boss. “That’s what we’re selling.”

The petroleum products they use now cost Genpak a $.80 per pound. Pulp, according to Rider, would cost between $.85 and $1 per pound.

These increased costs would trickle-down, apparently, to people like Jonny Falcones, who owns La Nueva Estrella el Castillo in Crown Heights. “The product we’re using is very well-liked by our customers,” Falcone said. “Raising the price would mean disaster.” He claimed to be speaking for 1000 other restaurant owners in New York. “Most likely” he would just go out of business, he said, echoing a talking point of lobbyists who opposed the Affordable Care Act.

“Small businesses are the backbone of New York,” said Councilman Robert Jackson (Morningside Heights, West Harlem), with a soda — not a Big Gulp! — in hand. “Let’s not hurt the backbone, because we won’t be able to stand up straight.”

Richard Master, CEO of Easton, Pennsylvania’s MCS Industries Inc — “the largest manufacturer of picture frames and framed mirrors in the United States” — said that his company uses 12 million pounds of recycled polystyrene every year. 40% of that — so, about 5 million pounds — comes from polystyrene foam. “We cannot get enough of it,” he said. “We would like it to be 50%, 60%, 80%.”

.5% of all New York City waste is polystyrene. (Fun fact: carpets and rugs make up 1.5% of New York City’s waste.) According to NYC’s “PlaNYC 2030” document, the official number on total city waste production is 14 million tons a year; about half of that is recycled. Unfortunately, we can’t extrapolate how many pounds of polystyrene the city jettisons each year. After all, it’s mostly made of air.

Master brought a gift for the Mayor: a framed picture of Bloomberg himself, made of 98% recycled materials “and not enough styrofoam to suit our appetite.” Mayor Bloomberg was not in attendance, so it’s unclear what became of the photograph, or what the other 2% was.

“I’m an environmentalist,” said Council Member Peter F. Vallone Jr, who hates graffiti, pit bulls, water flouridation and awls, in that order. He had some other claims. “I’m also a reasonable person and a business person,” he said.

Anyway! Fidler addressed claims that polystyrene would be better recycled than banned. “That would be great,” he said, “except none of the recycling plants in the city think it’s possible.”

“The substitute materials that will be used instead of foam, you cannot recycle. This legislation will ban the recyclable product but it will permit the non-recyclable substitute,” said Brown. “Go figure why any environmentalist would do that.”

In 2009, the city of Seattle passed a law banning polystyrene foam. Since July of 2010, all “one-time use food service containers” — of polystyrene or any other non-recyclable material — have been replaced with products that are either compostable or recyclable. Here is a list of those alternatives — everything from bags, bakery boxes and bowls to straws and utensils.

Included on that list? Genpak’s very own “Harvest” line of corn-based containers.

MCS Industries’ Master believes his company and others like it would be able to use absolutely all of the polystyrene foam produced by New York on an annual basis. “I hear that it’s close to 50 million pounds at this moment and I think that’s a blip in the overall requirement for polystyrene,” he said.

When asked how many times polystyrene material can be recycled into other products, Master looked to Reilly, the president of GenPak. “Almost infinitely,” Reilly said.

“Yes,” Master said. “Almost an infinite amount of times.”

Brendan O’Connor is an Awl summer reporter.