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San Jose rejects foam foodservice recycling

San Jose, California city council rejected a proposal to explore recycling of polystyrene foam foodservice packaging and instead moved to restrict its use by restaurants and other local foodservice operators.

The move is at odds with the trend in California to increase polystyrene foam foodservice recycling, including at curbside. Twenty-two percent of households in California – more than eight million people – can recycle polystyrene foam foodservice cups, plates, bowls, clamshells and other containers at curbside. There also are more than a dozen school districts and at least 15 community drop-off locations in California that recycle polystyrene foam foodservice packaging. Similar programs don’t exist for other foodservice and takeout packaging.

During the hearing, scores of local business people, including many restaurateurs, objected to the dramatically higher costs and the lower quality of alternatives to foam. They urged council members not to restrict the only foodservice packaging being recycled in California.

Some council members proposed exploring the feasibility of adding foam foodservice packaging to area recycling programs, which would remove more packaging from the waste stream and help reduce litter. The council rejected the recycling proposal and instead directed its staff to draft an ordinance to restrict the use of these products.

If passed by city council this summer, the proposed restriction would extinguish opportunities for recycling foam foodservice packaging in San Jose.

Plastics makers urged San Jose officials to reconsider. “Restricting polystyrene foam foodservice packaging will not eliminate waste or increase recycling,” said Tim Shestek, senior director of the American Chemistry Council in Sacramento. “Many people mistakenly believe that alternatives such as paper cups and plates are being recycled. However, there is no commercial recycling of these products.

“Recycling polystyrene foam used for foodservice and other packaging would increase supply of these recycled plastics and would divert more packaging from the waste stream,” Shestek continued. “It’s already working elsewhere in California – why take a step backward?”

Polystyrene foam packaging:

  • Makes up less than one percent of U.S. solid waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Represents 1.5 percent of litter, according to a 2012 national litter review.
  • Uses significantly less energy and water to manufacture than paper alternatives and creates significantly less waste by weight and comparable waste by volume, according to a 2011 life-cycle study.