The takeout item left on Bloomberg’s plate
He has battled the tobacco, taxicab and soda industries. Now, in his last days in office, one of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s final showdowns is with makers of plastic-foam food containers.
While the administration has been pressing the City Council to ban packaging like foam cups and foam takeout food containers from stores and restaurants, Dart Container Corp., one of the largest makers of such products, has been pushing back, arguing that contrary to what the mayor says, their products can be recycled after they have been used. The company is even offering a kind of guarantee.
In his state of the city address in February, Mayor Bloomberg said that foam food containers, which are made from expanded polystyrene, are “virtually impossible to recycle.” Environmental groups have long complained that because the foam does not biodegrade, it fills up landfills, and cities including Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Seattle have already banned them.
The proposed ban, which has been amended to give foam makers a year to prove that soiled containers can be recycled, is likely to come up for a vote before the end of the year. While the ban would affect only the city, the stakes are much higher because many of Mr. Bloomberg’s health and environmental policies have gone on to be adopted by other cities and states.
Since the mayor’s speech, Dart and the American Chemistry Council, a trade group, have organized small-business owners and lobbied the City Council to make sure a ban does not happen.
Dart has spent $120,000 lobbying the City Council and the Bloomberg administration, according to city lobbying disclosures. The American Chemistry Council has formed the Restaurant Action Alliance, a group of restaurant owners, and given the group more than $800,000 to fund its activities, including letters to City Council members asking them to oppose the ban. And Ariane Dart, the wife of one of the company’s owners, has given $38,525 to the campaign accounts of several candidates this year, including Bill de Blasio; William C. Thompson Jr., whom Mr. de Blasio defeated in the Democratic primary for mayor; Letitia James, the councilwoman who was just elected public advocate; and several council members.
“Clean foam,” the packaging that comes wrapped around appliances such as televisions and computers, for example, is easier to recycle, and has a higher market value, experts say.
In dispute is whether “dirty foam,” food containers soiled with oil, grease, condiments and leftovers, can be recycled. And whether there is a recycling market out there willing to buy it.
Dart says yes. The city says no.
“The city has a lot to gain,” Michael Westerfield, director of recycling at Dart, told members of the City Council’s Sanitation and Solid Waste Management Committee at a hearing last Monday. On the table in front of him were several foam items, including a cup, a food container, an ice chest and packaging material. If the city began recycling the food containers, Mr. Westerfield said, it could also recycle the other foam products. He then, sitting next to foam recyclers and buyers, shook a jar of recycled foam pellets at committee members as proof. “The environment wins because all this stuff sitting on the table with me gets recycled,” Mr. Westerfield said.
Mr. Westerfield has cited Los Angeles as an example of a city that recycles foam food containers. But officials there said they tried doing so, but stopped because “the end product was coming out contaminated,” said Michael Lee, that city’s project manager for curbside recycling. Los Angeles does recycle clean foam like packing materials, but “anything contaminated with food waste, oil grease, we don’t accept it,” Mr. Lee said.
The Bloomberg administration has said that besides filling up landfills, foam containers gum up the city’s recycling efforts, because many people mistakenly toss them in with their bags of recyclables, which then have to be picked through. If the Council allowed a tryout of foam recycling, dirty containers — like those smeared with food — would have to be separated from other recyclables, said Caswell F. Holloway, the deputy mayor of operations. The added sanitation routes necessary for a separate foam collection would put 1,000 more trucks on the street, Mr. Holloway said, and cost city taxpayers $70 million a year. And in the end, he said, there is no real market for recycled dirty foam.
“I don’t think that would be practical,” Mr. Holloway told committee members. The ban, he said, is “the most cost-efficient, rational and sensible way to deal with this.”
Mr. Westerfield contends that such recycling would not be a problem for New York City. He said the city’s recycling trucks could pick up foam with metal, glass and plastic, and at the Sims recycling center in Brooklyn (where Dart has offered to pay for a $500,000 sorting machine), the foam would be baled and carried by rail to a plant in Indianapolis where it would be washed, dried and sold. Mr. Westerfield also said that Dart would guarantee the city a price of $160 a ton for the recycled foam for five years.
Along with foam makers, restaurant and bodega owners have complained that banning foam food containers would force them to use more costly alternatives like paper or plastic, which they say do not keep food hot as long as foam. About a half dozen of them, wearing matching Restaurant Action Alliance T-shirts, testified in a nearly seven-hour hearing last Monday, as did Mr. Holloway, Mr. Westerfield from Dart, employees of polystyrene manufacturers, environmentalists, teachers and foam recyclers.
The mayor’s original proposal called for a ban on plastic-foam food containers, but days before the hearing, council members amended it to give Dart until Jan. 1, 2015, to prove to the city that foam food service containers could be recycled in a viable way. If Dart failed, the ban would take effect July 1, 2015.
The bill also gives establishments that gross less than $500,000 a year and nonprofit organizations a chance to apply for a waiver from the law, and says that only warnings, and no fines, could be given in the first year. But even with the changes, Dart does not support the bill.