WEIGHTY BATTLE OVER PLASTIC FOAM
Dart Container, the nation’s largest producer of plastic foam cups and
an employer of hundreds of workers at a manufacturing plant in Corona, is threatened with loss of its sales in California.
That is because polystyrene foam food containers and cups — the staple of many take-out restaurants — could be banned from California under proposed state legislation.
SB 568, authored by Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, seeks to eliminate the lightweight plastic foam because it is easily broken and blows out of garbage cans and trucks, ending up as litter that blemishes highways and waterways, clogs storm drains and endangers marine wildlife that ingests it.
“We are sponsoring this bill because polystyrene litter is the hardest to control of all litter,” said Miriam Gordon, California director of Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group that is co-sponsoring the legislation with Surfrider Foundation, a national surfer organization.
Opponents include the California Restaurant Association, the plastics industry and Dart, the nation’s largest manufacturer of polystyrene foam cups and a maker of foam plates and clamshell food containers.
Among Dart’s customers are fast-food giants such as Chick-fil-A, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Dart argues that no paper, cardboard or hard plastic alternative to polystyrene foam is as cheap or as effective at keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
The high cost of doing business in California a couple years ago prompted Dart to relocate about half of Corona’s manufacturing capacity to Tijuana, although what is manufactured in Mexico is still distributed from Corona.
About 80 percent of the cups, plates and clamshell food containers Dart distributes from its Corona warehouse go to customers within a 30-mile radius, according to Larry Eisenhauer, the Corona facility manager.
Dart argues that polystyrene foam poses no more of a litter problem than other kinds of packaging.
“We are high-profile because foam floats and it is bright white. … Foam is very visible but all the other products are right there under it,” said Michael Westerfield, Dart’s corporate director of recycling programs, which the company is promoting to address litter.
Dart has a public drop-off at its Corona plant that collects between 20,000 and 30,000 pounds of used polystyrene foam a month. That includes, besides fast-food containers, school lunch trays and plastic foam used for shipping electronics.
In the past couple years Westerfield said, Dart also has been pushing for curbside collection and recycling of polystyrene foam in California by appealing to cities and waste management companies that contract with cities.
“Curbside recycling is absolutely essential to get to the public,” said Eisenhauer. He figures that only the most committed environmentalists drive to the Corona plant to recycle their used plastic foam.
Most cities in California do not allow foam cups and containers to be placed in curbside recycling bins because of the difficulty of sorting out the voluminous lightweight material and hauling it to a company that can reuse it.
So polystyrene foam containers are thrown into the garbage and then landfills, where backers of SB 568 complain that they create an environmental problem because they are not biodegradable.
Fifty cities and counties in California — none in Inland Southern California — have enacted their own full or partial bans on polystyrene foam food containers.
“It has affected us for sure. We have lost business,” said Westerfield.
Dart has been trying out and promoting the use of equipment designed to make polystyrene waste easier to capture and recycle.
At its Corona facility, Dart runs machinery that grinds waste foam into small pieces that are heated, compressed and molded into 45-pound bricks. One brick that is 20 inches long by 12 inches wide and 6 inches deep contains 5,000 standard size foam cups.
Twenty times more cups can be placed on a truckload for recyclingthan if the cups had not been compressed, Eisenhauer said.
Dart sends all the polystyrene bricks produced at its Corona plant to a factory in Chino operated by Nepco Inc. that uses the material to make picture frames sold at Wal-Mart, Target and Michaels Stores.
Another polystyrene foam compacting machine was installed about a year ago at Burrtec Waste Management’s waste sorting and recycling facility in Fontana. The equipment was paid for by the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group, an industry group to which Dart belongs.
Burrtec then launched a polystyrene foam recycling program and signed up its municipal customers in Inland Southern California as participants, said Richard Nino, Burrtec’s director of municipal services.
Inland communities served by Burrtec that recycle polystyrene foam include Rialto, Yucaipa, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Upland, the city of Riverside, Grand Terrace, Rubidoux and Highland, according to Richard Nino, Burrtec’s director of municipal services.
SB 568 would allow a city or county to opt out of a statewide ban on polystyrene foam food containers if it has a recycling program that is likely to capture at least 60 percent of its polystyrene waste.
Justin Malan, a Sacramento-based consultant to the sponsors of SB 568, said he believes the bill has a greater chance of passage than previous failed attempts because it provides a four-year phase-in period and the recycling option.
Opponents object that the bill is vague about how communities can prove they have attained the recycling target. They also say it would be difficult to impossible to establish recycling programs statewide by Jan. 1, 2016, when the legislation would become effective.
“In 2007 there were no cities in California that offered recycling of polystyrene foam and now there are more than 40,” said Westerfield. But that accomplishment pales when you consider there are 480 local jurisdictions in the state, he said.
Daniel Conway, legislative and public affairs director for the California Restaurant Association, said SB 568 “would functionally be the end of polystyrene in California.” Alternative packaging would cost more, he said, and create “one more incremental expense for restaurants dealing with historically low margins.”
Dart is not wedded permanently to polystyrene packaging, Westerfield said. At its research laboratories in Michigan, the company is striving to develop “the next generation” of food containers that its customers want to be as efficient and cheap as polystyrene foam and also “something that is compostable and that disappears when it hits the ocean,” he said.
Meanwhile Westerfield said Dart doesn’t want to lose its market advantage in plastic foam containers and be forced to produce other kinds of packaging for California.
SB 568 narrowly passed the state Senate on June 2 and will have its first hearing in the Assembly on Monday before the Committee on Natural Resources.
Eisenhauer said when he next meets with all of Dart’s employees in Corona he will discuss the legislation. He said he recently talked about SB 568 with the company’s truck drivers.
“It was a pretty solemn group,” he said. “They know their livelihood pretty much depends on what happens. Jobs are at risk.”
Source : www.pe.com