Mayor Bloomberg plans to ban foam food containers from takeout places, schools, and delis throughout the city. Following a successful ban on transfats, as well as a proposed ban on supersized sodas and cigarettes in public places, removing polystyrene foam boxes, cups and trays is the mayor’s latest attempt to reduce the city’s carbon footprint and improve the quality of life in New York.
“Something that we know is environmentally destructive, that is costing taxpayers money, and that is easily replaceable, is something we can do without,” Bloomberg announced in his final State of the City address at the Barclays Center.
According to the Department of Sanitation’s website, few recycling plants in the U.S. accept Styrofoam because it is difficult to recycle, so it must be shipped long distances. “The transport and processing is expensive, unsustainable and not environmentally friendly,” according to the agency’s website.
“But it’s not just terrible for the environment. It’s terrible for taxpayers. Styrofoam increases the cost of recycling by as much as $20 per ton, because it has to be removed,” Bloomberg said.
The mayor plans to work with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) and the City Council to adopt a law banning foam food packaging from stores and restaurants.
Similar bans are already in place in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Cali.; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle, Wash.
According to a Quinnipiac Poll released on February 28, 69 percent of New York City voters support banning foam food containers, while 29 percent oppose it. Support is high from every borough and nearly every group, except Republicans.
“We support the proposal to prohibit foam from food containers in New York City,” said Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Polystyrene foam causes a disproportionate amount of litter and adds to the cost of sanitation services for New York City taxpayers.
“Polystyrene is an extremely light, brittle substance and when it is left around as city trash, it breaks into tiny little parts and litters our streets,” Goldstein added.
According to Goldstein, foam takes up a lot of volume, since it is mostly air, which adds to the cost of shipping the city’s trash to out-of-state landfills. The foam is also made from petroleum and remains in its current state for hundreds to thousands of years.
Public schools will have to remove foam trays from their cafeterias. Currently, New York City schools use 830,000 foam lunch trays per day, according to the DSNY. Since March 2010, the Department of Education implemented “Trayless Tuesdays,” which divert 2.4 million trays from landfills per month, by using paper “boats” instead.
Dunkin’ Donuts, which operates 140 locations in Queens, is developing a new cup that will accommodate the ban, while keeping drinks hot and preventing burns, according to a spokesperson. Their stores are individually owned, so prices will vary from store to store.
“A polystyrene ban will not eliminate waste or increase recycling; it will simply replace one type of trash with another,” the Dunkin’ Donuts spokesperson said in a statement.
Goldstein noted that McDonalds stopped using foam in the 1990s and continues to operate a very successful business in New York City.
“It’s clear that alternatives are simply more expensive,” Andrew Moesel, the spokesman for the New York State Restaurant Association said. “While there are many downsides to Styrofoam, we have to be concerned about the impacts to people who might not be able to afford [alternatives].”
The alternatives range from twice to six times more expensive, Moesel said. Bought in bulk, foam takeout trays cost about 7 or 8 cents, while cardboard alternatives cost about 15 cents, plastic costs 30-45 cents, and biodegradable foam costs 50-55 cents. Styrofoam is also logistically beneficial because it is structurally sound and maintains warmth or cold, Moesel added.
“Restaurant owners wake up every morning and go to sleep every night worried about costs,” Moesel said. “Right now, with paid sick days, the national healthcare act on the horizon, an increase to the minimum wage, and a multitude of other local regulations, they aren’t getting very much sleep.”
Ayman Alim, the owner of J&J Superstar Deli on Woodhaven Boulevard, said that a ban would not impact his business because he already uses paper coffee cups and plastic trays due to concerns about recycling.
Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (Astoria), a member of the Environmental Protection Committee, supports polystyrene foam recycling, instead of a complete ban.
“Styrofoam is clearly an issue we need to take a look at. We can’t let our landfills keep filling up with this stuff,” Vallone said. “I took on the plastic bag issue and we got that done.”
Vallone wrote the plastic bag recycling law, which passed in 2008, requiring all big box stores and supermarkets to have receptacles for customers to recycle plastic bags. Vallone supports using this as a model for foam recycling.
The ban is also unpopular upstate.
State Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) wrote a letter to Bloomberg, opposing the proposed ban.
“New York State is home to several companies that manufacture these items, one of which is located in my district. Your proposed ban will not only harm businesses and consumers in your backyard — it will also destroy jobs in mine,” Kolb wrote.