New York bans plastic foam containers, could your city be next?

If you live in Washington DC and Chicago: yes. Photo: EPA

WASHINGTON, December 26, 2013— Last week New York City’s Democratic-led city council passed a law banning food containers made with polystyrene foam, also known as plastic foam—or incorrectly as Styrofoam.

The ban, set to go into effect July 1, 2015, also applies to loose polystyrene foam used in packing, commonly known as “peanuts.”

Several cities have already passed similar bans, including San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and Amherst, Mass. Albany County, NY passed a law banning plastic foam containers last November.

“Styrofoam is a useful material. It maintains heat. It’s cost effective. But the fact is, it’s not very good for the environment,” said Andrew Moesel, spokesperson for the New York Restaurant Association to USA Today.

Intact or large pieces of polystyrene can be cleaned up relatively easily. However, polystyrene is brittle and quickly begins to disintegrate into small pieces that are extremely difficult to clean up and remain in the environment for a very long time (at least 500 years, according to the Environmental Protection Agency). As Polystyrene breaks up, the small pieces become indistinguishable from food, and are ingested by fish and other wildlife.

To the delight of environmentalists and the woe of critics of the “nanny state,” a growing number of cities and counties across the U.S. are proposing the change as well.

Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has introduced a plastic foam food container ban in the District as part of an environmental legislation package submitted to the D.C. Council, reported the Washington Post in November.

“This is part of the pollution challenge that we face with the Anacostia River,” Mayor Gray said at the announcement of the environmental initiatives, part of his “Sustainable D.C.” plan. “One need only ride around on the banks of the Anacostia and the Potomac, and you will see the refuse in the river.”

Chicago is also proposing a ban on the containers.

“Some businesses … are already phasing it out. It’s a matter of pushing it, making it a policy,” said Chicago Alderman George Cardenas, to USA Today.  Cardenas is co-sponsoring legislation banning the sale of plastic foam containers in his city. “It’s not eco-friendly, if you will. This is just something that needs to be done.”

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Members of the hospitality and plastic product industry are speaking out against the trend of banning foam containers in cities across the country. Dart Container Corporation reportedly spent close to $1 million in an effort to block the New York City legislation.

In March, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) published a study stating that packing costs for food vendors could double as a result of a foam container ban. In New York City, the study estimated the ban would cost city businesses, taxpayers and consumers $93 million per year, as they would be forced to seek more expensive alternatives.

In a compromise to those negatively affected by the ban, the New York City law will not go into effect in 2015 if the City’s Sanitation Commissioner were to find that there was an “environmentally effective” and “economically feasible” way to recycle the polystyrene containers and peanuts. This is unlikely, however, as other cities including San Jose, CA, have conducted similar inquiries and were unable to find an adequate way to recycle the product. 

While some worry that this may raise costs for retailers and prices for consumers, several other studies have found that costs would not be significantly affected by a polystyrene container ban. According to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office, their research indicates an average rise in price of $.02 per product. 

Other restaurant and food producers are remaining neutral. Many in the industry have already started making the move to phase out polystyrene, according to Kathy E. Hollinger, leader of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, reported The Washington Post.

In September McDonald’s Corp.—which stopped using plastic foam containers for burgers in 1990—announced that it would phase out polystyrene cups at its U.S. restaurants. The fast food giant will be replacing the plastic foam cups with paper cups in the coming months.

Similarly, Dunkin’ Brands Group, owner of Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robins stores, announced an in-store polystyrene cup recycling program in its latest corporate social responsibility report. The report also announced that the company planned to introduce an alternative to plastic foam cups in the next few years.


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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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