Public Works: New York City Bans Polystyrene Foam
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Public Works: New York City Bans Polystyrene Foam

Toronto recycles its foam dishes, trays, and packaging, but they can still have a harmful effect on health and the environment.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

In yet another decisive environmentalist move, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced on January 8 that, starting this summer, stores, manufacturers and food services will no longer be allowed to “possess, sell, or offer for use” single-use polystyrene foam products. The ban will include polystyrene dishes, trays, clamshell containers, and packaging.

Polystyrene foam (commonly known by the trademarked brand name Styrofoam) is non-biodegradable, highly toxic when burned, and has been banned by more than 70 municipalities in the United States alone. New York’s Department of Sanitation has declared the substance unrecyclable.

Yet Toronto has been recycling polystyrene foam since 2008. It can be done. The problem, as critics point out, is that it’s exponentially more expensive to recycle than other materials, and only works if Torontonians really do recycle responsibly. Recent data shows this is not the case.

In 2013, only 53.3 per cent of household waste was recycled, composted or otherwise diverted from landfills. To put that in perspective, Guelph managed a 68 per cent waste diversion rate in 2012, and Markham achieved over 80 per cent.

The statistics are swayed by the fact that Toronto is a big city—residents of high rises appear far less likely to recycle or compost, possibly due to a lack of appropriate bins. Regardless, Toronto is failing by its own standards. In 2007, city council vowed to keep 70 per cent of waste out of landfills by 2010—a target we haven’t even come close to.

Polystyrene foam containers seem especially susceptible to ending up in the garbage can instead of the blue bin. After all, it was only in 2008 that Toronto began recycling them, and they do look and feel like irredeemable garbage. Even if diligent citizens put the polystyrene in the right receptacle, it must be rinsed free of food and other residue to be recycled. And because they are non-biodegradable, polystyrene containers that end up in landfills stay there pretty much forever.

To help citizens know where and how to throw polystyrene out, the City of Toronto has a pretty extensive answers page, dubbed the Waste Wizard, for locals unsure of what to do with waste. But even if we can achieve 100 per cent polystyrene recycling rates, the material is still an environmental terror.

For one thing, polystyrene is made from petroleum-based plastic, increasing our dependency on a non-renewable resource. And the manufacturing process has been linked, by California State’s waste management agency, to increased levels of cancer, chromosome damage, and “abnormal pulmonary function” among plant workers.

With the ethos of zero-waste food packaging on the rise around the world, banning polystyrene foam products seems a logical step.