Styrofoam Food Packaging Legislation Oversimplifies Issues, Recycling Options

Frank Liesman

There is a surprising amount of misinformation in circulation about polystyrene food service packaging, considering what a simple and common product it is. Some jurisdictions in California have banned the use of polystyrene foam takeout containers and AB 1358 (Hill), would have banned the use of polystyrene foam and non-recyclable disposable food service containers by restaurant operators and retail food vendors statewide. In the following VerdeXchange News interview, Dart Chief Counsel Frank Liesman makes the case for polystyrene.

VerdeX: For our readers who may not be familiar with the company, describe what Dart Container Corporation does, especially in the area of food packaging.

Liesman: Dart is a privately held company, owned by the Dart family. It has been in business for 50 years and has been servicing customers, clients, national accounts, food service cafeterias, and government office buildings with a broad range of food service packaging in anything from polystyrene cups to clam shells for takeout food containers to and utensils. We also make a variety of cups. We do printing on the cups for our customers. It’s a broad array of food packaging.

VerdeX: To provide context for our interview, what drives demand for polystyrene food-packaging materials?

Liesman: EPS foam is low-cost because it is mostly air. It can be printed upon, so therefore it is a good marketing piece. In the overall viewpoint it is a very good product. It can meet a lot of requirements for our customers.

It is an excellent performer as a material. It has not had performance shortcomings that you would find in a paper cup or in alternative plastic materials. The foam cup is a good insulator for both hot and cold beverages. The way it utilizes air and merges the beads together to form the insulated wall allows the hot beverages to remain hot without burning your hand or requiring a further insulated barrier between the two. For cold beverages it retains the cold so your cup won’t sweat as a paper cup may do. Its make-up is very good from a performance standpoint.

VerdeX: Given Dart Corporation’s products, share with our readers what the company is investing in and promoting regarding new packaging design, municipal recycling, energy efficiency, and greenhouse gas mitigation.

Liesman: It has long been the philosophy of the company to strive for more efficient production. That naturally led into looking at our product and our processes to see what steps we could take to reduce our carbon footprint, to make sure that, when possible, we use renewable energy or recycle energy, and to promote the recycling of our product.

One of the facts related to our product is that it is almost all air. There is very little material in the foam cup when it is produced. As a result we are using a significant amount less of material than you might find in a corresponding paper cup.

We recycle our heat here in Michigan during the winter, off of our boilers, in order to reduce our need for outside energy for heat. We are constantly looking at methodologies and ways to approach our production to make sure that we are taking advantage of an efficient, environmentally sensitive operation.

VerdeX: Please expand on long-term industry recycling efforts, especially for post-consumer polystyrene and other disposable food service packages. Give our readers a sense of what’s being tried nationally.

Liesman: There hasn’t been enough emphasis on the recycling of polystyrene foam due to market conditions and the low-cost of virgin resin to produce these products. However, as these issues have been raised —most especially in California—we at Dart have looked to establish an infrastructure, through our company’s efforts and by working with our trade group, to have recycling as a more viable and available option to individual consumers and municipalities.

VerdeX: How is Dart collaborating with municipalities, especially in California?

Liesman: We partnered with, for example, Tracy, California and Roseville, California, giving them commercial-sized densifiers that will allow them to compact and densify the foam that is dropped off by the citizens of those cities. In turn, we have made arrangements to find homes for that recycled foam. Now, this could be not only just food packaging of that foam, but if you buy a new T.V. or computer, for example, you will have some of that foam packaging in the box. A consumer or citizen in those cities can drop off that material in Tracy and Roseville. It will be densified, shipped off, and recycled into another product.

VerdeX: What in the way of municipal infrastructure is needed in larger markets, in California or across the country, to scale recycling?

Liesman: Both Tracy and Roseville have been successful, but they are not large cities. We would like to see something along the lines of what has happened in the city of L.A. Two years ago next month, L.A. began recycling polystyrene foam in their blue bin program. It has been a successful endeavor; people continue to recognize and remember that they can put the polystyrene foam in that bin to be recycled. The material is ultimately collected and sent to Timbron, which is a California company in the Stockton area, for recycling into crown molding sold through Home Depot. What really needs to be done in order to carry this to the next step is to promote the fact that EPS foam can be recycled for food packaging or product packaging.

VerdeX: Share what the alternatives for consumers are to foam and polystyrene—coated paper, for example. Compare and contrast how the alternatives respond to the needs of consumers and the environmental priorities of municipalities.

Liesman: The alternative materials, both plastic and paper, are certainly available. But when you look at the overall assessment of EPS foam it brings a total package, so to speak, to what the consumer needs. It is low-cost; it is functional. Again, you are using very little material compared to some of these alternatives. It’s mostly air. Its performance can’t be beat at this point. We’ve looked at a number of competitor paper products and they don’t offer the same insulation properties. They can’t be recycled to any great extent because of the polyethylene coating on the inside of the cup. As a result you are paying for something that is much more expensive to produce. It is more expensive to require restaurants and businesses to carry those lines of products. They are not as efficient as EPS foam and, ultimately, they cannot be recycled into other products.

VerdeX: Ontario, Canada is a world leader in polystyrene recycling. What does the city of Toronto offer residents?

Liesman: The city of Toronto began curbside pickup of EPS foam in November or December of 2008. Their focus has been, like many places in California, to address a significant litter problem in the greater Toronto area. They identified that paper cups, water bottles, and bags were causing significant litter issues in the area. They set up a joint commission and found that there is really no meaningful way of recycling paper cups with a polyethylene coated lining on the inside, whereas EPS foam can be recycled, and is being recycled, by the Canadian Polystyrene Recycling Alliance (CPRA) to produce picture frames.

VerdeX: What are the particular industry challenges of recycling post consumer polystyrene food packaging?

Liesman: The most significant is contamination of the product. It is difficult to separate the contaminants. When I speak of contaminants I am not only speaking about food-type contamination—left over food products in the product itself—but also other materials that get mixed into the waste stream, like paper straws and different plastics. It’s a bit of a challenge to separate the materials so that you get EPS foam. Obviously the follow-up challenge is to then reduce the food contaminants so that the material can be processed and used in a different way.

VerdeX:To deal with their environmental pollution and land fill issues, a number of jurisdictions around the country have entertained the notion of placing restrictions or bans on the use of plastics and polystyrene. What is Dart doing to resolve such concerns in a constructive way?

Liesman: It’s not an easy answer, but bans really do not offer the answer. It’s a poor way of legislating public policy. We don’t deny that litter is a big issue. That has really been the main focus of many of these green cities in California that have passed these bans. But the fact that a ban has passed doesn’t really address the litter issue. People will continue to litter, regardless of the material. Certainly we think there should be more of a focus on how we can stop litter or enforce the current litter laws that are in place. Bans really aren’t the best approach because they focus on one issue and they don’t even really do a very good job of that.

They also don’t take into consideration that these bans would have an economic impact—the potential loss of jobs or increased cost for small businesses that have to service the individual consumer. A lot of these businesses are small mom and pop operations like the local Dairy Queen or 7 Eleven. It makes it much more difficult for them to be profitable and to remain in business if they are forced to buy more expensive alternative products. Again, the bans don’t address the major issue, which is litter. That is what we should be focused on.

VerdeX: If you were in a point-counterpoint with environmental groups or cities pressing for restrictions on polystyrene food packaging, what constructive options would you offer that promise a reduction in litter and more recycling of the waste product?

Liesman: One thing I hope is that there will be a more cooperative approach and attitude, that they would be looking to work with industry in developing a solution or a game plan to address some of these significant issues. Developing and supporting a stronger infrastructure for recycling and setting up recycling centers around the area or doing curbside recycling are certainly better approaches than an outright ban. An outright ban won’t solve the problem. It will also allow, with a combined effort, for both government and industry to work together on an alternative beyond recycling, to see if there are businesses that could have use for this material.

VerdeX: Lastly, are investments being made today with respect to improving product design and post-consumer disposal options, especially in California?

Liesman: I can’t speak for the industry, but Dart Containers does invest a lot of effort with our engineering group in looking at ways to improve not only EPS foam but other alternative products: is there a next generation of a foam cup that might still meet the performance, cost, safety, and value that the current cup provides to our customers?