City: Recycling Plastic Foam Would Add 1,000 Deadly Trucks to NYC Streets

Sanitation truck drivers are among the most dangerous to NYC pedestrians and cyclists, and two City Council bills that could lead to recycling — rather than banning — plastic-foam containers may end up putting 1,000 more trash haulers on city streets.

A 1999 report found that garbage truck drivers had the highest fatality rate of any category of NYC motorist. The city says it would take 1,000 new trucks to recycle foam food and drink containers. Photo: ## Cal Metro/Flickr##
A 1999 report found that garbage truck drivers had the highest fatality rate of any category of NYC motorist. The city says it would take 1,000 new trucks to recycle foam food and drink containers. Photo: ## Cal Metro/Flickr##

Mayor Bloomberg wants to stop the use of polystyrene foam food and drink containers, as they add waste to landfills and are often mistakenly mixed with recyclables. Other cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, already have bans in place.

As part of a lobbying effort, the foam container industry, which wants the city to recycle rather than ban its products, has given thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, Public Advocate-elect Letitia James, and several council members.

Both de Blasio and James have come out in support of Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban, but it was weakened by a council amendment that would give the city a year to determine if foam can be recycled “in a manner that is environmentally responsible” and “economically practical.”

Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway has told the council it would take $70 million a year and an additional 1,000 sanitation trucks to pick up, sort, and process “clean foam” products for recycling. The city says foam containers dirtied by food can’t be recycled.

In the 1990s, street safety group Right Of Way found that sanitation truck drivers kill more city pedestrians and cyclists per mile driven than any other motorist category. Here is Charles Komanoff, citing the 1999 report “Killed By Automobile” for Streetsblog in 2010:

With an average of 23.8 peds or cyclists killed per hundred million miles driven, garbage trucks had by far the highest fatality rate in the study, exceeding the all-vehicle average of 1.7 killed per hundred million miles by a factor of 14. Within the garbage truck category, the per-mile rate of killing pedestrians and cyclists was two-thirds higher for private haulers than for NYC Department of Sanitation trucks.

The Times reported yesterday that the foam container industry has spent nearly a million dollars to lobby electeds against the ban. According to the Campaign Finance Board, Ariane Dart, whose husband is one of the owners of the Dart Container Corporation — reportedly the world’s largest foam cup and container company — donated money this year to the campaigns of de Blasio, James, Bill Thompson, Christine Quinn, Jumaane Williams, Peter Koo, Vanessa Gibson, Chaim Deutsch, James Oddo, Leroy Comrie, Robert Jackson, Dan Garodnick, Fernando Cabrera, Mark Weprin, and Inez Dickens.

Capital New York reported in November that Jackson and fellow Council Member Diana Reyna have introduced competing legislation that would require the city to recycle foam containers. The bill does not call for a study on the feasibility of such a program, or its effect on the city budget. G. Oliver Koppell and Rosie Mendez are co-sponsors of that bill.

  • There’s the additional issue that polystyrene recycling is a sham. A ban makes sense.

  • niccolomachiavelli

    Re: “but it was weakened by a council amendment that
    would give the city a year to determine if foam can be recycled ”in a
    manner that is environmentally responsible” and “economically

    Naive. That amendment is a beard not a flaw. It is meant to give City Council people and the incoming mayor cover and Public Advocate cover against the economic disruption (1500 layoffs statewide not citywide, who cares about upstate employment in the city counci?l).

    No one is going to invest in the machinery, labor and infrastructure to recycle polystyrene for a one year “experiment”. It is a hurdle no one will jump over. This way no one has to renegotiate the agreement with SIMS the present recycling subcontractor.

    The stuff is recyclable, its not a sham. Making money on the recycling may be a sham, paper, glass and plastic are problematic as well. What is a sham is this amendment and the imaginary 1000 trucks (from a fleet of 3000) needed to move what they are already hauling.

    The big lie is harder to disprove than the small lie.

  • qrt145

    I’d like to see the work behind the 1000-truck estimate.

  • Joe R.

    Whether polystyrene foam can be recycled or not is moot because recyclable paper or cardboard containers can often do the exact same job. It’s important moving forward to design things with end of life in mind. That especially goes for one-use items like fast food containers. For years take out places used waxed cardboard containers. And then they switched to plastic. Putting aside the fact that many of these containers don’t get properly recycled, I’m not comfortable with using plastic or styrofoam containers for food. It’s well known that these add trace amounts of known carcinogens to food stored in them. Let’s go back to paper and cardboard whenever possible.

  • Bolwerk

    All recycling is problematic (most is actually downcycling of some sort), but the polystyrene problem might be unique in that there aren’t many other uses for polystyrene, which makes it more difficult/expensive. Even waste paper from your printer can be pulverized and then used as a pizza box or something.

  • Bolwerk

    I can’t speak to the number, but this should be remembered: your landfill
    garbage, which presently includes foam, can be crushed so trucks can pick up a high density of material. Your recycling (“special pickup” is the sanitation jargon, I think) can’t typically be crushed. The foam is pretty high
    volume, but low density, so suddenly having to pick it up intact takes a lot of space on trucks.

    This also has ramifications for fuel efficiency. I suspect Jym is right and it’s better to just ban the stuff in favor of other materials.

  • Bolwerk

    In much of Europe, the bounty on a bottle is 25 eurocents. And a bottle will typically be glass rather than plastic because of the health problems you mention. If you want a plastic bag when you shop, you pay for it.

    Streets are conspicuously cleaner too.

  • JK

    Like to see more about how the residential and commercial recycling and hauling would work. Commercial waste carting is done by private vendors, so would the additional trucks be DOS, private or both and in what proportion. If memory serves, the private carters are running people in disproportionate numbers. Also, do you really need full-size trucks for foam given how compressible it is? Maybe those mini-Parks Dept trucks would work.

  • @niccolomachiavelli:disqus – There are limited uses for some forms of downcycled plastic, but the approach taken has been a sham overall. The fact that every piece of plastic has a “chasing arrows” recycling symbol on it is deliberately misleading, designed to increase consumer acceptance about 20 years ago. (The official story is that it’s to help sort the useful plastics from the ones that aren’t.)

    The history of the plastic recycling sham is different from what you suppose. The industry has in the past been happy to build a temporary “experiment” dog-and-pony show facility to prop up the illusion that recycling could theoretically happen. Then, of course, the material gets shipped off to Asian landfill where some miniscule portion is maybe recycled someday.

    The “paper, glass and plastic” narrative mishmashes history as well. It used to be that paper was iffy, but glass and metal more than made up for it. The latter have been largely supplanted by plastic, making the entire enterprise less profitable — and thus the race to the bottom, where smaller brokers who actually had some ethics were put out of business by megacorporations with container ships to China.

  • LN

    What if the City started taking the safety record of private garbage haulers into consideration when awarding contracts? How about making these safety records public so private businesses can also take it into consideration? This is one way to make these companies accountable the injuries and deaths resulting from their trucks and drivers. Streetsblog or R.O.W. could maintain such a list pretty easily.

  • fkg

    I’ve read that paper recycling plants, when sorting through the incoming waste, remove all pizza boxes because the grease damages equipment. Can cardboard food boxes be recycled in NY? It’s my understanding that this is less of a problem with metal and some plastics. Maybe they would be better materials.

  • Joe R.

    Metal by far is the easiest material to recycle. Or maybe we can go with returnable packaging. For example, you get a pizza in a reusable plastic or metal box, leave a deposit of a few dollars, and get that back whenever you return the box. I’m a big fan of this type of packaging, provided it’s used in a commercial setting where it’s properly sanitized between uses.


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