(PHOTO- Oysters growing on a piece of styrofoam found on a beach in Hong Kong)
Below is a letter written to New York City Council who is currently considering a styrofoam
ATTENTION: New York City Council RE: New York City’s proposed Styrofoam Recycling Styrofoam Bill
Dear New York City Council Members:
I’m writing to express The 5 Gyres Institute’s support for banning polystyrene takeout containers in New York City and voting against the proposed Styrofoam Recycling Bill currently being heard by City Council.
The 5 Gyres Institute is a global research, education and advocacy organization that sails the world’s oceans studying the type, amount, density of marine born plastics (including polystyrenes) as well as toxicity of the food chain based on ingestion of ocean born synthetics. Early next year, 5 Gyres will publish the first-ever global assessment of plastics in the ocean in a peer- reviewed journal. Though the results of that assessment are embargoed until publication, suffice it to say, it’s a staggering amount. In addition to global research, 5 Gyres advocates for several mitigation strategies for curbing the flow of synthetics into our shared waters. Amongst these mechanisms are Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), better Recycling Infrastructure, Source Reduction, Cleanup, and Banning Problem Products. Polystyrene is considered a problem product, which is absolutely supported by the vast majority of economic data/markets for recycling, as well as by the scientific literature applied to a human health perspective.
According to the 2010 US EPA report on Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Americans dispose of 1.16 billion pounds of polystyrene, annually[i] and recovery of this material for recycling is so inconsequential that it doesn’t necessitate it’s own category, expressed simply as, ‘other.’ The economics of recycling polystyrene don’t work, and won’t, even with Dart’s proposed subsidization of New York’s proposed polystyrene curbside recycling bill. Dart is offering $160 per ton for the material, though the California Department of Conservation pegs the costs of recycling polystyrene at more than $3,000 per ton, meaning polystyrene has a negative scrap value[ii]. In this scenario, based on California’s Department of Conservation cost to recycle (25,000 estimated tons collected multiplied by $3,000 + $160 per ton), Dart would be electing to spend $79 million to recycle New York City’s polystyrene? That’s ridiculous. Even if this can be shown to be true, the added expense would be passed on to consumers making more sustainable alternatives competitive. The reason the cost to recycle polystyrene is so high is because Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) find sorting polystyrene nearly impossible because of its tendency to fragment into small pieces in the sorting and collection process and contaminate other recyclable materials with food waste thereby devaluing other, healthy material markets. Simple math demonstrates that the model Dart is proposing is bankrupt.
Dart must not be allowed to subsidize the recycling of polystyrene as a stop-gap measure, and the adoption of this tactic by the City of New York sets a dangerous precedent for The United States as a whole. Unfortunately, recycling of polystyrene as a negative environmental impact mitigation strategy isn’t supported by any market viable economic model or third party case study. Of further concern is the lack of transparency intrinsic to this proposal; what oversight would be in place to ensure that Dart actually recycles this product after shipping it away to another state? And what becomes of the second generation product at end of life?
The problem is that polystyrene, in terms of applying independent market data to a recycling model, is unequivocally, worthless. Beyond this, the 4 million dollar polystyrene Dart subsidy would only generate revenues (extrapolated from a recent article in Crain’s New York Business[iii]) that equal .0057% of New York City’s annual budget[iv]. In short, the amount of revenue generated is an insignificant from a macro-economic vantage and should not be used as basis for the adoption of bill. Furthermore, curbside recycling programs or availability to them, do not address the litter issue and without a deposit on this product, there is no incentive to recover it from the environment. From a marine debris standpoint, polystyrene recycling vs. landfilling is no different. What’s also of concern is that Dart’s offer doesn’t resemble a carefully vetted EPR solution, but instead, is more akin to a bribe aimed at a cash-strapped municipality.
But the real issue with polystyrene is that it’s a poisonous material from the outset and serves as a sink for other toxic chemicals present in the environment that have food chain wide implications for humans. It is well documented in the scientific literature that many marine species ingest polystyrene [v] and in a paper published by the journal Nature: Scientific Reports, researchers definitively showed that toxic chemicals absorbed by marine born synthetics transfer from the ingested particles to the organism itself[vi]. Polystyrene, because it is derived from a lipid (or fat aka oil) attracts hydrophobic (repelled by water) persistent organic pollutants (POPs)[vii]. These pollutants are lipophilic (attracted to lipids aka fats) and polystyrene is amongst the worst types of material in terms of its ability to absorb POPs. Small organisms are consumed by larger predators and thus, these toxic pollutants are most likely magnified up the food chain (current research is working to document this phenomenon), the apex predator of which, is humans.
Beyond the absorption of toxic chemicals, polystyrene also leaches toxic chemicals into the environment. In a recent study[viii] conducted by Nihon University, Chiba, Japan, researchers have shown that the building blocks (monomer molecules) of polystyrene transfer from polystyrene to contaminate the environment as a whole. The toxins, found in the environment from this study, are listed as ‘priority pollutants’ by the United States EPA Clean Water Act[ix].
The City of New York has an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate to the world that based on the science and economics of polystyrene, that as a material, it should be phased out entirely to prevent further exposure of toxic chemicals to humans and wildlife. Why on earth would New York City choose to continue to pollute the environment and expose humans to toxic chemicals for a price tag of a mere 4 million dollars?
The answer is clear: don’t support this terrible polystyrene recycling bill.