Mayor misspoke himself when call on ban of "Styrofoam" food products

A spokesperson for The Dow Chemical Comp. (DOW) emailed us over the Thanksgiving holiday regarding New York City Mayor Michael Rubens Bloomberg's proposed ban on "styrofoam".

I. Bloomberg's Big Gaff

The mayor first raised the idea at his final State of the City address in February remarking:

One product that is virtually impossible to recycle and never bio-degrades is Styrofoam. Something that we know is environmentally destructive and that may be hazardous to our health, that is costing taxpayers money and that we can easily do without, and is something that should go the way of lead paint.

Mayor Bloomberg
Mayor Bloomberg is a bit confused when it comes to plastics. [Image Source: Getty Images]

The mayor has since corrected himself in a radio program, stating:

We’re not banning- well, come on, Chris, we’re not banning everything.

It- you can still buy cigarettes. We haven’t banned that. You can still by 32 or 64 ounces of a full-sugared beverage. You just have to take that one, in the case of 16 ounce cups and- in the case- if it’s in a store- if it’s in a restaurant or a theater. And in with smoking, you can’t smoke where other people have to breathe the smoke. But you can still do that. And in the case of Styrofoam, which is really- Styrofoam is a brand name. It’s really polystyrene that you’re banning.

An awful lot of places in the West Coast have already banned it. Here in New York City, it costs us an extra $20 a ton to take it out of these recycling things. And you put them in landfills, you come from Staten Island, look at what we’ve done in Staten Island.

We created- or in Fresh Kills. It’s going to be 20 years before enough things biodegrade so that we can turn that into a park. We never should have used Staten Island as a big dump over by the Fresh Kills side. We stopped it.

Giuliani, as a matter of fact, stopped it. And we're not going back to do it, but we’ve got to be smarter the next time and not create these things. Styrofoam, or polystyrene, does not bio- does not degrade with time. It’s just there forever. And it’s not good for you, and it costs us a lot of money.

And the stores- most stores have already gone away from it. This is not asking anybody to do anything that’s really going to hurt anybody, but it’s good for everybody. And so we’re not banning everything. We’re just trying to have some intelligent things. It costs us money. Chris, your tax bill is higher than it needs to be because we’ve got to go and take polystyrene out of the waste. So, you know, it’s in your interest, too.

But City Council, such as Brooklyn Councilman Lew Fidler (who proposed the ban in the City Council) continue to use the term "styrofoam" erroneously.

A Dow spokesperson complains:

The Dow Chemical Company has developed a sold the STYROFOAM brand of insulation for more than 50 years.  Dow is the owner of numerous registrations for the trademark STYROFOAM throughout the world.  The trademark STYROFOAM is used on Dow's plastic foam insulation and construction products for use in residential, commercial and industrial buildings, and on floral and craft products.  It may not be used to describe other products, such as polystyrene packaging, or as a generic description for foam products [as the Mayor stated].

STYROFOAM brand extruded polystyrene is not used to produce foam cups, trays or other food containers.  These expanded polystyrene foam products should be referred to with the generic term "polystyrene foam" or "foam," rather than referring to Dow's branded trademark name.  Dow has worked over the years to produce an exceptional product and developed substantial good will and brand equity in the brand STYROFOAM.  This fame, good will, and brand recognition is important to Dow and it is equally important that the company does not permit use of Dow's trademarks by others in a manner that would cause harm to the brands.

DOW Chemical doesn't make foam food containers. [Image Source: Bloomberg]

In other words while the plastics covered by the ban -- which would include all plastic-foam cups made of expanded polystyrene used for food and packaging -- are chemically similar to Styrofoam, they are not Styrofoam.

Squirrel EPS cup
EPS -- expanded polystyrene -- is used in cups, where as Styrofoam refers to a trademarked blend of EPS used in insulation -- but not for food products. [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

To be fair "styrofoam" (which often loses its abbreviation) has entered the public vernacular as a term to refer to all matters of foam plastics.  The mistake is troublesome as a ban on EPS (expanded polystyrene) food containers and cups would not affect Dow Chemical, but would affect other firms.
II. Who WOULD Be Impacted by the Ban
The hardest hit company would be Dart Container Corp. -- a Mason, Mich.-based privately owned plastics firm that's the world's biggest maker of lightweight foam plastics for food products.  Half the company's $3.5B USD in annual sales reportedly comes from EPS products for the food industry.

DART Container sign
Dart Container makes the food industry plastics mistakenly referred to as "styrofoam".
[Image Source: MSU Friendship House]

Fearful of the dire financial impacts of a ban, Dart Container has extended a rather generous offer, according to Crain’s New York Business, to buy Bloomberg's "Styrofoam" (actually EPS) in bulk at $160 USD per ton, and truck it to a recycling plant in Indiana.  The proposal would cut roughly $2M USD in annual disposal costs for the city, which currently ships the foam plastic to a landfill.  The bulk purchase would provide the city up to an additional $4M USD in revenue, as well, essentially saving $6M USD for the city.

Dart container tour
Dart Container has offered to pay the city to recycle its styrofoam waste. [Image Source: ASMDC]

Hardline critics, however, claim that the company will still end up shipping much of the foam product to landfills, as they are skeptical it can be cleaned.  Brooklyn Councilman Lew Fidler, the primary sponsor of the Bloomberg-backed bill, complains:

If it could be recycled, everyone's for that.  The problem is, I don't think it can be. A Styrofoam cup thrown into a recycling truck—how many itty, bitty pieces is it going to end up in? How can you wash those itty, bitty pieces?

Annually 2.5 million tons of EPS foam is dumped into landfills, with only 1 percent being recycled, according to a Stanford Univ. Alumni Magazine article.  It's unclear, though, how much of that waste flow is comprised of polystyrene shipped to recycling plants is deemed "unwashable" and subsequently discarded in landfills.

Sources: Dow Chemical Comp. [email], Crain's New York Business

"So, I think the same thing of the music industry. They can't say that they're losing money, you know what I'm saying. They just probably don't have the same surplus that they had." -- Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA

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