EPS ban could impact senior care

Michael Greenfield
Michael Greenfield

A ban on certain expanded polystyrene (EPS) in New York City is going to make an impact on senior living facilities, and may set a precedent.

Some history: In 2012, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced his first initiative to reduce the use of plastic-foam in New York. The "Tray-less Tuesdays" program launched in city public schools and replaced 830,000 disposable food service trays on those days with paper containers. Bloomberg, who has previously targeted transfats, supersize sodas, and smoking in public areas, is determined to expand the plastic-foam ban throughout the city. He recently proposed a citywide ban on plastic-foam food packaging, including takeout boxes, cups and trays, in public schools, restaurants and other businesses. 

Plastic foam takes years to break down in the trash and is expensive to recycle - up to $20 per ton when the city processes it. The city handles about 1.2 million tons of food waste each year; the mayor's office estimated that the city's annual waste stream included about 20,000 tons of plastic foam. 

All Styrofoam (EPS) items are banned from distribution and use in NYC as of July 1, 2015.The law allows businesses a six-month grace period from the effective date of the law, meaning fines will not be imposed until Jan.1, 2016. Banned items include all polystyrene foam single-service items: cups, bowls, plates, takeout containers, and trays.

This poses a challenge for long-term care dining managers. Polystyrene foam cups have advantages over paper cups in settings that cater to seniors. For example, foam insulates better than paper, making it the safest choice for healthcare providers. To protect their hands from a hot beverage, paper cup users frequently use two cups together, a cardboard sleeve, or wrap layers of napkins around the cup

A plastic-foam ban could have a profound impact on the healthcare industry, from nursing homes and assisted living facilities to hospitals. Containers made of paper can often be significantly more expensive than their foam counterparts. An 8-ounce foam cup costs a long-term care facility's food director around $13.25* per case. A comparable case of 8-ounce paper hot cups costs $34.53*. Other disposable food service containers, such as hinged food containers and serving plates with dividers, have an even bigger discrepancy in price. Multiply that by thousands of facilities and millions of products annually and the impact is enormous. 

New York is not the first city in the nation to explore anti-foam legislation. Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco and Seattle have all enacted bans. Economic concerns have affected legislation in other parts of the country. A bill in California to ban polystyrene foam used for serving food was rejected by the State Assembly concerned with the likely loss of jobs, expense to the state and unfair recycling rate requirements. 

When legislators have learned more about polystyrene foam food service packaging, and particularly the bill's impact on jobs and the state budget, support for the ban faded, according to Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council. One analysis for similar legislation in 2009 concluded that California would lose nearly $1.4 billion in output, $335 million in earnings and close to 8,000 jobs, he said. Every industry in New York that uses polystyrene foam products for serving food and drinks would see expenses go up. 

Restaurants, schools, government agencies and healthcare providers will be forced to pay wholesale costs of alternative solutions that cost twice as much, or even more. That's tough to swallow when so many healthcare businesses are already being squeezed by tougher regulations and lower reimbursements. 

Michael Greenfield is the CEO of Prime Source, a group purchasing organization providing procurement solutions to the non-acute healthcare industry. 

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