Should New York City ban foam food containers?

| December 4, 2013

In the city that never sleeps, there’s one thing you can count on: take-out food available at any time from nearly every street corner. As such, polystyrene (a.k.a. foam) food containers are ubiquitous. However, if outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg and Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio have their way, foam food containers will be a thing of the past.

New York’s City Council is currently weighing a number of proposals — backed by both Bloomberg and de Blasio — that would ban foam food containers of all kinds. To say it’s a divisive issue would be an understatement. A recent public hearing drew strong voices from both sides of the issue.

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New York City restaurant owners expressed objections to the proposals, citing increased costs associated with more expensive foam alternatives. “Polystyrene foam is the best option for my business because it keeps my food fresh and at the same time, it allows me to charge a fair price,” argued Jimmy Nelson, owner of Nelson Paella restaurant in Brooklyn.

The Associated Press quoted Councilwoman Diana Reyna who agreed that the proposed ban would “unduly burden small businesses by increasing inventory costs,” and those cost increases would likely be handed down to customers.

Proponents of the ban say that potential cost increases for restaurants are a fair trade-off compared to the environmental cost of continuing to allow the use of foam containers. Deputy Mayor Caswell Holloway pointed out that around 23,000 tons of foam containers from New York City end up in the landfill each year. As foam takes particularly long to break down, this is a big concern for environmentalists.

With both sides staunchly rooted in their camps, the city council is reviewing a possible compromise. One proposal would ban the containers, but only after allowing a year to determine “whether the tons of containers could be effectively recycled instead,” reports the Associated Press.

Thomas Outerbridge, whose company Sims Municipal Recycling holds the contract for New York City’s plastics recycling, says that recycling foam containers isn’t currently feasible. There are some alternative ideas floating around — including shipping material to Indiana to be cleaned and recycled. However, as you might expect, this raises a whole slew of other issues, not the least of which is that shipping items across the country to be cleaned carries a hefty carbon footprint that makes the overall effort significantly less green. (That’s unfortunate, since typically we see recycling as a win-win solution.)

“If it can be recycled, sure, let’s recycle it,” Holloway said — but recycling seems unlikely, and Holloway thinks the ban is “the most cost-effective and rational way to deal with this.”

Foam container bans are already in place in San Francisco and many other U.S. cities, but no other city churns out take-out quite like the Big Apple, so New York stands to make a significant impact if the bans are put in place.

A date hasn’t yet been set for the council’s vote, and both sides are still making themselves heard. Stay tuned!

Category: Food, Regulations

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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