INSIGHT: California EPS ban proposals continue to haunt industry

14 September 2011 15:41  [Source: ICIS news]

By Michelle Klump

HOUSTON (ICIS)--In the same breath used to admit defeat at the hands of the California State Assembly this session, proponents of proposed legislation that would have banned California vendors from serving food in polystyrene (PS) foam containers vowed to return next year for another try.

California State Senate Bill 568, which made it further than three other similar bills in recent history, was approved by the state senate and two assembly committees this summer, but was set aside on 9 September after sponsors realised they did not have enough votes to pass the measure in the lower house.

Both sides admit the threat of lost manufacturing jobs during a tough economic cycle helped to stall the bill this session. But the rhetoric is already heating up for another battle in 2012.

"I am committed to this endeavour and am looking forward to 2012 as the year California becomes the first state in the nation to phase out the use of polystyrene foam food-ware," says California state senator Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, the bill's lead sponsor.

Supporters of the legislation have said that expandable polystyrene (EPS) causes significant problems in the state's waterways, storm drains and marine environments because it breaks down into small pieces, is lightweight and easily dispersible.

Already 51 jurisdictions in California have banned EPS food containers, which proponents say is proof of growing support for eliminating the product.

However, opponents of the legislation, including the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the California Chamber of Commerce, and the California Restaurant Association, point to a lack of comparable alternatives to EPS, as well as economic and environmental concerns relating to those alternatives, as reasons why a widespread ban will fail in the future.

Polystyrene cups weigh 2–5 times less than comparable packaging and require 50% less energy to produce than a similar plastic-coated paperboard cup with a corrugated cup sleeve, opponents argue.

In some cases alternatives cost almost three times as much, says Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the ACC, which lobbied against the bill.

Another problem, Christman says, is that there is no easy way to compost the alternative products, as kerbside compost pick-up is nonexistent in all but a few cities.

Instead of banning EPS, Christman argues that the best course for environmentalists to take is to support EPS recycling efforts, which are increasing in California, and in the US.

More than 71m lb (32,205 tonnes) of EPS were recycled in 2010, including 31.7m lb of post-commercial packaging, 5.4m lb of post-consumer packaging and 34.2m lb of post-industrial recovery, according to the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers.

Post-consumer and post-commercial EPS recycling increased by 10% from 33.6m lb in 2008 to 37.1m lb in 2010, the group says.

In California, more than 40 cities now offer kerbside recycling of EPS foam, up from almost none in 2007, according to statistics provided by the recycling programme for DART, which manufactures PS foam cups.

However, one packaging expert says that while improving recycling opportunities may help in the short term, it will not keep opponents of EPS foam at bay for long.

Joseph Hotchkiss, director of the school of packaging at Michigan State University, says there is momentum for a change towards more sustainable packaging as a result of a combination of consumer and political pressure.

Additionally, as energy prices rise, and petrochemical-derived polymers compete with energy, there will be an added cost pressure to make a change, Hotchkiss says.

There will still be demand for expanded polymers, but the packaging market will push for more bio-derived or renewable sources, he adds.

Researchers are currently working to develop cellulose-based expandable foams, says Hotchkiss. While the material does not yet have the thermal properties of standard EPS, researchers are getting closer, he adds.

The trend towards using more renewable packaging products is becoming increasingly evident as consumer goods manufacturers strive to lower their carbon footprint and improve their marketing position.

"We, as consumers, we buy products that we like, based on their performance/value ratio. We are not going to give up products very easily but we like to feel better about our products," says Hotchkiss. "How does one company gain an advantage by making consumers feel better? One thing is packaging."

For example AT&T, a major US telecoms company, announced on 12 September that it would introduce a new bio-based plastic, using 30% of renewable feedstock sourced from sugarcane ethanol, in its accessory packaging.

US soft drinks giant Coca-Cola is working towards a 100% bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle by 2020.

For now, however, there is no infrastructure in place for widespread use of bio-based alternatives to EPS foam, says Hotchkiss.

One EPS producer says it sees no threat from continued efforts to ban EPS in California or elsewhere until a truly comparable product is widely available in the market.

"I don't think there will be much of a domino effect," the producer says. "Foam has a role and a place, in my opinion."

For more on PS, EPS and PET visit ICIS chemical intelligence
Check out Doris de Guzman’s Green Chemicals blog for views on sustainability issues

By: Michelle Klump
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