After years of waiting for retailers to get their act together and deal with the mountains of fast food container waste, the city is finally threatening to flex its muscles.
But get ready for it: chem-?heavy, carbon-?loaded foam polystyrene (commonly known by the Dow Chemical brand name styrofoam) is making a trashy comeback. Those who thought the foam debate was carted off to the landfill in the 90s are stunned to learn that the city plans to start recycling the stuff by December 2008.
This blast-from-the-past plan is included in an October 29 report called Proposed Measures To Reduce In-?Store Packaging Waste And Litter, Municipal Hazardous And Special Waste And Plastic Water Bottles. This week, deputations were heard at City Hall on the proposals.
While the document includes a number of proposals, including banning water bottles from community centres and recycling plastic bags, the most controversial has to do with a solution for the 360 million hot drink cups released into the city each year.
The issue boils down to this: while most coffee cups are paper, the lids are polystyrene - and the two cannot be recycled together without the city forking over millions more for our trash system.
"In general, we want to recycle as much as we can in our program," explains T.O. solid waste GM Geoff Rathbone. The problem, he says, is that the secondary market folks who buy recycled plastic only want plastic, and those buying paper... well, you get it.
The alternative to all-?plastic or all-?paper is a separating system at the secondary users' plants (good luck convincing them) or a costly sorting addition, estimated at $3 million off the bat and $1 million annually, on the city's end.
"If we can eliminate a problem upstream, it makes more sense," he concludes.
Well, maybe. But there is another way: the city could set deadlines for companies to stretch a bit on the development end to create paper lids, so that when you finish your paper cup of double-double, you'd toss the whole mess into a blue box. Even this is just a temporary solution; the endgame is BYO, as in "bring your own," or use refillable cups available at the café.
To its credit, the report does call for discounts of 20 cents per cup of coffee for those who bring a reusable mug, but this won't become the prime sipping experience if the city makes things easy and lets retailers "go green" by taking the quick foam route.
Foam polystyrene's return from disrepute is certainly bumming enviros. "It's a big scare," says Farrah Khan, founder of NaturoPack, an org pushing to ban styrofoam food containers. "The city is indirectly encouraging businesses to switch to polystyrene," she notes, pointing out that municipalities like San Francisco have banned the stuff outright.
She questions whether putting foam in the blue bin can really be called recycling. "You're just downcycling it - you're extending its life, but it's going to end up in a landfill eventually," she says, her point being that whatever it becomes for a while - picture frames, crown moulding or trays for plants - it's here for a 1,000 years once it hits the landfill.
Then there's the huge carbon footprint needed to make foam, with its heaps of petrochemicals, and the possibility of food contamination.
"There's a potential health risk, because we know they use benzene and styrene in the production process. Benzene is a known human carcinogen and styrene is a suspected one."
Putting hot liquids into those cups day after day - well, Khan says you can count on some leaching.
"Styrofoam has a bad name, and there's a good reason for it," says Toronto Environmental Alliance's Heather Marshall. It sends a mixed message, she says, to consumers who have already been living comfortably without styrofoam cups.
"People feel good about putting things in the recycling bin," she says.And they're going to be only too happy to toss in their petro-?container. "To encourage reduction, you sometimes have to not allow things into the recycling bin."
Consulting company Green Shift's Jennifer Wright, too, is suspicious of the polystyrene flashback, suggesting there might be a little petrol lobby work involved.
"I think the petroleum industry wants to look good. So if it can be recycled - all of a sudden people think it's okay."
It is interesting that the polystyrene recycling plant in Malton that shut down in December 2007 is open for business again, just in time to take Toronto's styrofoam.
Green Shift sources biodegradable plastic and paper food containers for businesses. But these throw another wrench into the recycling system, because plastic cups, etc lower the overall quality of reused material for buyers, and paper tainted by polystyrene lids (even Green Shift can't get away from these) can't be either blue- or green-binned. Ergo, these containers, too, will be banned under the city's plan.
"Polystyrene recycling is a step back," she says. "Put a ban on [traditional] plastics instead and it would help biodegradables come down in price." And are paper cups with plastic lids really too difficult to separate? "The lid pretty much pops off as soon as the cup is collapsed," notes Wright.
When it comes to takeout food containers, polystyrene is just too easy for retailers. Restaurants are often reluctant if a customer asks to have food placed in Tupperware. I know, because I've tried. Some places say no because they're convinced you're planning to poison yourself with your dirty plastic container and come back with a team of lawyers.
"We recognize that there's no immediately available refillable alternative," explains the city's Rathbone. "That's why we're giving the industry two years to come up with a reusable package."
We don't know what that might look like. Mayhap like the He-?Man lunch box from my childhood or, suggests Rathbone, something like a Meals on Wheels container.
Perhaps restaurants could take their cue from the dabbawalas of Mumbai. They deliver meals in tiffin tins - standardized reusable stainless steel containers with convenient handles.
It all comes down to progressive thinking. And that's why polystyrene is a cop-out.
CITY'S FAST FOOD PACKAGING PLAN
• All foam polystyrene will be acceptable in the blue bin as of December 8.
• Retailers must provide a 20 cent discount when a customer uses a reusable hot-?drink cup.
• Retailers must communicate the discount through signage and receipts.
• As of December 31, 2009, the sale of hot drinks in cups not compatible with the blue bin, like paper-?based cups with polystyrene lids, will be banned.
• Restaurants must develop a reusable container by December 2010.
• Plastic takeout food containers not compatible with the blue bin, like non-?foam, clear or coloured polystyrene, will be banned by December 2009.