Some plastic food containers could be banned in Minneapolis

Polystyrene foam container
First-term Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson eats Indian food out of a container he hopes to ban. It's made of polystyrene foam, which is difficult to recycle.
Curtis Gilbert / MPR News

At least once a week, first-term Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson buys lunch at Spicy Touch Indian Grill in the city's downtown skyway. He likes the food, but hates what lands in the garbage can.

"Usually when I come in here, when it's really busy during lunch hours, I'll actually see a little tower of Styrofoam containers coming out of the trash bin, because you just can't fit that many in there," Johnson said.

That tower would be illegal under an ordinance Andrew is proposing. He wants to ban restaurants from selling food in containers made of expanded polystyrene, a type of plastic foam. More than 100 cities and towns across the nation have passed such laws.

"Shipping air" is too expensive

Although the plastic in the foam is recyclable, it is one of the few types of plastic Minneapolis doesn't recycle. The problem with the foam is that it contains little plastic. Only about 5 percent of a foam cup, for example, is polystyrene. The rest is just empty space.

That makes transporting it to market economically unfeasible, Minneapolis recycling manager Kellie Kish said.

"You are technically shipping air." Kish said. "With how expensive shipping is, that's not something that most companies want to spend their money on."

Minneapolis could avoid that problem by spending $20,000 up to $100,000 on a densifier, a machine that can reduce 8,000 foam cups into a 40-pound cylinder, according to the Dart Container company.

The company has led the opposition to proposed bans in other cities. Bans like the one Minneapolis is considering don't solve the problem, contends Michael Westerfield, the company's director of recycling program.

"If the foam cup and the take-out container is banned, most of the foam is still out there," Westerfield said. "When people buy new TVs, they'll still get it in that foam packaging. That's not banned. When they buy their meat, the meat tray is exempted, so they'll still get their meat tray. When they buy that ice chest -- all that material's still there. But if they recycle, they can capture all of that material."

Nationwide, only a few dozen cities recycle plastic foam. In Minnesota, Coon Rapids accepts it at a drop-off site, but doesn't pick it up with other recyclables.

Besides the cost of the equipment, there are logistical hurdles. Most potential buyers of used foam want the material squeaky clean. That's hard to achieve in a single-sort recycling program like the one Minneapolis uses. When newspaper and beer bottles get mixed with the plastic, things get a little messy.

Food containers account for less than half of the 2.6 billion pounds of plastic foam consumed in the United States each year.

Westerfield also points out that plastic foam represents only a tiny percentage of the country's overall garbage output. A study last year from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found about 1 percent of the state's trash was polystyrene, which is used in construction, packaging, and even CD cases.

Looking for alternatives

The proposed Minneapolis ban only targets restaurants, and would go into effect Jan. 1.

Minnesota Restaurant Association officials have said the association could live with a ban, but Executive Vice President Dan McElroy said his members would like more time to find an alternative that works as well.

"Polystyrene has the advantage of not having your food stick to it, being reasonable in cost, readily available, something customers are accustomed to," McElroy said. "But there are options."

Compostable take-out containers cost more than twice as much as foam ones, but their prices may come down as more cities pass bans like the one Minneapolis is considering.

New York City is scheduled to implement a ban in July of 2015. But under its ordinance, the ban on plastic foam takeout containers takes effect only if the city determines recycling won't work.

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