Mayor proposes ban on plastic foam containers

Photo by Christina Santucci
By Karen Frantz

As Mayor Michael Bloomberg enters his final year in office, he is continuing to cement a legacy of reimagining New York as a greener city by proposing a ban on plastic foam food containers.

And although his proposal has been met with cautious support by many in the City Council, some are wary about the potential effects on small business and question whether an outright ban is the right approach.

Bloomberg first proposed a citywide ban on plastic foam in restaurants and stores during his State of the City address in February. In his speech, he pointed out that the material — often made into cups, plates, trays and takeout containers commonly used in the food industry — is difficult to recycle and does not biodegrade.

It also costs taxpayers money because it is expensive to remove from other materials in the recycling process.

“Something that we know is environmentally destructive, that is costing taxpayers money and that is easily replaceable is something we can do without,” he said. “So with Speaker Quinn and the City Council, we will work to adopt a law banning Styrofoam food packaging from our stores and restaurants. And don’t worry — the doggie bag and the coffee cup will survive just fine.”

Bloomberg colloquially referred to plastic foam as Styrofoam, which actually is a brand name for a product by Dow Chemical Co. that is used in insulation, not food containers.

Plastic foam is commonly used to make food containers or trays because it holds heat and cold well, is durable and is fairly cheap compared to other alternatives such as paper or plastic.

But it poses several environmental problems. It is generally immune to decomposition, as opposed to some other alternatives, so it can stay in landfills for centuries. Plus, it does not easily compact and thus takes up more space in landfills.

If New York were to ban plastic foam, it would not be alone. Similar measures have passed in San Francisco and Portland, Ore.

It would not be the first time New York has attempted to ban the material. A bill that would have restricted the use of plastic foam in food establishments was introduced in the Council in 2007 and again in 2010, but efforts to pass the measure stalled.

This time around, however, the proposal appears to have momentum. Although the details of a ban have yet to be revealed, the general idea has obtained the support of Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) and Councilwoman Letitia James (D-Brooklyn). James chairs the Council’s Sanitation Committee, to which a future bill would likely be referred.

Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), who chairs the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection, also expressed support for the concept.

“This is an issue whose time has come,” he said, cautioning that details of the proposal have not been put forth yet.

But some restaurant industry players are concerned a ban may disproportionately hit small businesses, which may rely more heavily on plastic foam containers because of the relatively low cost.

“This will primarily affect mom-and-pop and ethnic restaurants as well as street vendors,” said Andrew Moesel, spokesman for the New York State Restaurant Association.

He said the average plastic foam container costs about 7 or 8 cents per piece if bought in bulk. That’s compared to 14 or 15 cents for cardboard containers and 25 to 50 cents for plastic containers.

Moesel also said there could be ways to lessen the effect of a ban on small businesses. As an example, he suggested only applying the ban to restaurants that have a certain number of locations, similar to exemptions in the city’s rule requiring restaurants to display calorie information.

He also warned that there could be more wide-ranging effects on the industry if the ban were to apply not just to containers that are used for serving the public but also for other purposes, such as plastic foam used to make fish deliveries.

But he said many members of the Restaurant Association are already using alternative food packaging material, such as paper or plastic.

“There hasn’t been the uproar that there was about the soda ban,” he said, referring to the city rule limiting the size of sugary drinks.

Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Astoria) also said an outright ban may not be the only way to mitigate environmental impacts of plastic foam. He said the city could also investigate putting into place a recycling program, similar to other recycling programs in approximately 65 other U.S. cities. He said he introduced such a measure himself in 2010, but it stalled.

But he said he applauded Bloomberg for starting a discussion on the issue of what to do with plastic foam.

“We can’t continue to dispose of it as we have been,” he said.

Reach reporter Karen Frantz by e-mail at kfrantz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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