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Why Styrofoam — amid all of Colorado’s recycling struggles — is being targeted for extinction

The plastic industry warns that there's no guarantee potential foam replacements will be recycled more just because they can be.

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Styrofoam is the bane of any environmentalist’s leftover lunch. But even as some Colorado cities have tried to ban and food stores — including McDonald’s — have ditched polystyrene foam in favor of more sustainable containers, it hasn’t gone away.

It’s time, said Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Democrat in Commerce City who is pushing a bill that would ban restaurants and stores from using Styrofoam cups and to-go containers.

“There’s a more sustainable market for compostable, recyclable food containers and we need to utilize those more and transition away from Styrofoam products,” Moreno said during a committee hearing this week on Senate Bill 243, which would give restaurants more than four years to comply.

The state Senate will consider the bill on Wednesday.

Crews move polystyrene foam, which is commonly referred to as Styrofoam, to a machine on site to be crushed at Alpine Waste & Recycling in Denver. But at this time, the recycler isn’t taking foam food containers, which often arrive with dirty and can contaminate the rest of the recycled material. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

The continued push to ban Styrofoam pits some plastics over others. The proposed law, which would go into effect in 2024, specifically bans polystyrene foam, not other plastic, like the hard-plastic, clear food containers. Those opposing the bill argued that Styrofoam is recyclable and banning foam containers that excel at keeping soup warm will cost restaurants more.

It may not even help with recycling efforts, said Tim Shestek, a senior director of state affairs for the American Chemistry Council, a trade group.

“This doesn’t mean replacement products will be recycled or reduce litter,” Tim Shestek testified during the Monday hearing. “There’s a big difference between what’s technically recyclable and what’s being recycled … None of this will be diverted from (landfills) unless that infrastructure exists.”

More: Coloradans produced a record 9.3 million tons of trash last year. Only 12 percent of it was recycled.

The reality is that nearly everything can be recycled, as long as there’s a market for it and a reliable method to do so. But consumers in Colorado don’t have access to all those options. It became even more difficult last year after China stopped accepting certain paper and plastics from the U.S. Local recyclers raised prices, while others stopped accepting certain plastics, including plastic #6, a.k.a Styrofoam.

In the Front Range, Denver’s Alpine Waste & Recycling invested in a foam crusher so it could smash Styrofoam into compact, dense blocks so they don’t fly off the truck as they’re transported to a buyer. But Alpine only takes larger foam packaging, rather than food containers which tend to arrive with remnants of food affixed, said Brent Hildebrand, Alpine’s vice president of recycling.

Alpine Waste & Recycling in Denver accepts larger pieces of polystyrene foam, or Styrofoam, for recycling. It crushes them into dense 50-pound blocks by. But the company can’t accept foam food containers because they are usually not cleaned first. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

“Contamination in the packaging is very important and if the packaging is too dirty, we can’t recycle,” Hildebrand said. “Regarding food container type foam, while it is something we could handle, it seems to be way too dirty.  We do have some that deliver their own food packaging type foam that has been cleaned and we can recycle that.”

Michigan-based Dart Container Corp., a top food-container manufacturer that sent a representative to testify against the bill, recycles foam and shares recycling options on its site. The company cleans used foam and turns it into material for picture frames and crown molding.  There’s also a map at HomeForFoam.com showing a half-dozen locations in the Denver area that accept the Styrofoam — with caveats. Some don’t accept food or beverage containers, while others say the plastic must first be cleaned by the consumer.

Environmentalists have railed against plastics and polystyrene foam for years. Plastic can take centuries to degrade and, in the meantime, it breaks apart and has shown up in the stomachs of marine life and other animals, even mealworms (though the latter appears to be a good thing).

More: Recycling in Colorado is tedious, cost-prohibitive, voluntary — and evolving

But Coloradans do a poor job of recycling. A report last year by Eco-Cycle and the Colorado Public Interest Research Group said the state’s recycling rate flat-lined at 12%. Some of the reasons for low participation is that it’s confusing, not required in many cities and citizens often must pay extra for it.

“I actually used to work for a waste hauler,” Moreno said. “The reality is that if you don’t make recycling as convenient as possible for folks, they’re not going to do it. … The reality is most of the polystyrene foam is going to end up in our waste stream.”

Recycling isn’t always easy in Colorado. At a Starbucks in Denver, there are special bins but not everything that customers may think can be recycled actually is. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Many restaurants and other food stores have switched to more eco-friendly containers, from Illegal Pete’s to Steuben’s Food Service and even McDonald’s (“As of 2018, all centrally managed guest packaging is fully out of foam, including all of the U.S.,” a McDonald’s spokeswoman said.) For those who haven’t, the bill would force them to follow suit, or else face action by the Attorney General.

Senate Bill 243 prohibits retail food establishments from using polystyrene foam in cups or containers for food eaten off the premises. But unlike a past bill killed in committee that would have allowed local governments to regulate any plastic food containers, the proposed law is  limited to Styrofoam, creates a standard statewide and provides a long leeway for compliance. If passed, the law would go into effect in 2024. Other, more recyclable hard plastic containers, aren’t part of the ban.

“Keeping it as one statewide standard so it’s not a patchwork of regulations was important, along with a long implementation period so restaurant owners have time to find alternative, that was important,” said Nick Hoover, manager of government affairs for the Colorado Restaurant Association. “When we got the limit to (Styrofoam only), a statewide standard and the Jan. 1, 2024 implementation date, at that point we decided to go neutral.”

The industry would prefer no regulations. Hoover said it’s already difficult to make sure restaurant members know when new laws are introduced and adopted.

“The hard thing about communicating to restaurateurs is they don’t spend the day sitting at a computer. It’s hard to get their attention,” he said. “They’re spending 60 to 70 hours a week running their restaurant.”

More: Thousands of usable iPhones trashed by one Colorado firm because well-meaning donors forgot to turn off “Find my iPhone”

In Colorado, local communities have tried on their own to tackle single-use plastics, including limiting the use of straws, plastic bags and foam food containers. But many attempts were halted after learning of an arcane state law that prevents local municipalities from banning plastic.

Some sought alternatives. Aspen, which was sued unsuccessfully over its plastic-bag ban, focuses on voluntary compliance. The towns of Telluride and Mountain Village supported an in-town business accelerator that attracted sustainability startups with a product to help solve some problems.

“Since Colorado has a local preemption against banning plastic to-go containers, state level legislation is the only option,” said Liz Chapman, a senior environmental health specialist with the city of Aspen. “From our perspective, this bill is complementary to our waste-prevention efforts.”


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