Chemical Industry Lobbied Council Extensively to Derail Plastic Foam Ban

November 26, 2013 Updated: November 27, 2013

NEW YORK—The chemical industry lobby, which has been working against a proposed ban on plastic foam containers, is one of the most sophisticated the City Council has ever seen, according to Council member Lewis Fidler.

Fidler said that lobbyists from the American Chemistry Council and DART, the world’s largest manufacturer of foam containers (plastic foam is commonly referred to as Styrofoam, a brand name), have been “living with council members” for the last nine months as part of their campaign against the ban.

Fidler, who sponsored the legislation, spoke before a hearing on the bill at the City Council Monday.

“The industry has quite an outstanding profit motivation here,” Fidler said.

DART has no manufacturing plants in New York state, but has been trying to stop a ban in the city. It offered City Council $160 a ton for foam containers, and lobbied for a recycling program. Currently the city pays $95 a ton to truck plastic foam to landfills.

Cas Holloway, the deputy mayor of operations, said DART contacted him and he put the company in contact with Sims, the city’s contracted sorter for recycling. Sims and DART held a pilot recycling program, but Sims found the product was too difficult, costly, and time consuming to recycle.

A New York State Assembly bill banning plastic foam loose-fill packaging that does not contain recycled material, states that plastic foam “is not easily recycled due to its light weight and low scrap value.”

The Assembly legislation cites a 2008 study that found that it cost $2,000 per ton to recycle plastic foam, compared to less than $100 per ton for glass.

The lobbyists said recycling is possible, and point to municipalities like Los Angeles. But a letter presented at the City Council hearing Monday from Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz said, that foam “containers contaminated with food waste are not, in fact, recycled in any way in the City of Los Angeles.”

Alternate Routes

Lobbyists have also taken other approaches. The American Chemical Council formed the Restaurant Action Alliance NYC. Restaurant Action Alliance representatives then approached thousands of restaurants across the city shortly before the legislation was introduced in August.

Representatives from the Alliance told restaurant owners the legislation would increase their operating costs, and asked them to sign letters to their council members. The restaurant owners were not told of the connection between the Restaurant Action Alliance and the American Chemistry Council.

Fidler acknowledged that letters from restaurant owners were funded by the chemical industry.

Chair of the Sanitation and Solid Waste Committee, and public advocate-elect, Letitia James, said she was aware of the connection between the American Chemistry Council and the Restaurant Action Alliance.

“That’s the greatness of democracy,” she said. “Opposing views will be heard as well.”

James supports Fidler’s bill to ban foam containers, but said a compromise was made with the chemical industry. The Council last week inserted a clause that would give the sanitation commissioner a year to decide whether recycling foam containers is feasible.

Sanitation Deputy Commissioner Ron Gonen said during the hearing that plastic foam is not recyclable.

A curbside recycling program for the single-use containers would require an additional 1,000 truck routes and would cost the city about $70 million a year, according to Holloway. He said 84 percent of chain restaurants in the city, more than 3,000 restaurants, no longer use foam containers.

In May, Gonen and Holloway met with Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s, the two largest generators of foam cup waste.

“Both [Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s] told us in writing that foam cannot be recycled and they have initiated plans to discontinue the use of foam cups,” Holloway said.