New Yorkers may soon have to wave goodbye to plastic foam coffee cups and take-out boxes. Last month, during his final State of the City address, Mayor Bloomberg announced that he wanted to ban the non-biodegradable plastic foam substance known as polystyrene, a move that would follow the likes of west coast cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Portland.
Environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) applaud the mayor’s effort, saying that banning these substances could have a real impact on everyday urban living.
“Bloomberg has a sensible proposal to keep our streets clean and dispose of our household waste as well as phasing out a petroleum based product that has a short, useful life but stays around for many decades,” said Eric Goldstein, the environment director for the NRDC.
But it’s not easy being green, especially for businesses in New York concerned that alternatives to polystyrene could be expensive and really cut into small business’ pockets, as well as cost jobs of polystyrene manufacturers.
Even big businesses like Dunkin Donuts could be hurt by the ban. The corporation released a statement of disapproval of the proposed ban: “A polystyrene ban will not eliminate waste or increase recycling, it will simply replace one type of trash with another.”
“This is yet another mandate that government is imposing on a business when they’re already struggling to survive,” said Mike Durant, the New York director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “This will threaten jobs like any other mandate you see that comes from government.”
In fact, a study released by the American Chemistry Council found that the proposed ban would actually cost the city $100 million annually. A Styrofoam cup, according to the New York Restaurant Association, costs seven cents, cardboard cups cost 15 cents, and a plastic cup could cost 45 cents per container. This may sound like only a matter of pennies, but according to the study, New York City restaurants could see a $57 million increase in costs. In addition, as many as 1,200 polystyrene manufacturing jobs could be lost with the enactment of a ban.
But despite the alleged costs, the ban is backed by multiple legislators like the Upper East Side’s Senator Liz Krueger, who wants the substance banned statewide.
“This would be a great step forward for our city, both for the environment and public health – but we shouldn’t just stop at the city limits,” said Krueger last month after the State of the City address.
So what is polystyrene? Usually called Styrofoam, polystyrene is a petroleum-based expanded foam plastic. The substance is often preferred by restaurants because it insulates hot beverages better than paper or cardboard. According to the American Chemsitry Council, most polystyrene nowadays is actually made from a combination of petroleum and natural gas.
Those on the side of small businesses say that New York City should implement a recycling program for polystyrene. But according to NYC.gov, polystyrene is not recyclable because it is “very difficult to keep clean and separate from other types of plastic.” Because it is difficult to clean and extremely lightweight, polystyrene would be costly to ship to a recycling plant, according to NYC.gov, and would cost the city money.
Alex Dmitriew, the commercial zero waste coordinator for San Francisco said that for similar reasons, the city of San Francisco also could not have a polystyrene recycling program, so the substance ended up as trash, and more often, litter.
“Typically polystyrene never really goes away. It breaks down but never deteriorates, it can end up in our sewer system and on our streets,” said Dmitriew.
San Francisco has had a polystyrene ban in place since 2007, and has been encouraging the usage of sugar cane and plant-based containers, known as PLA or bagasse products. According to the compostable container and utensil distributor worldcentric.org, these organic products biodegrade in 60 days. Whereas, according to the NRDC, most polystyrene and plastic products are non-biodegradable, and stick around in the environment for thousands of years.
An organic PLA hot beverage 8-ounce cup costs less than 10 cents on the worldcentric.org website, only three cents more than the American Chemistry Council’s listed cost of polystyrene containers.
But a 2006 study done by the Plastic Food Service Packaging Corporation found that despite being a petroleum-based substance, polystyrene actually uses less energy than organic substances, because the foam material is 90 percent air.
Eric Goldstein called foul on the results of this study.
“The restaurant industry knows that for environmental safety reasons the city is moving in this direction of phasing out their policy, so they string together some arguments and throw around some numbers,” said Goldstein.
San Francisco has actually found that the city is much cleaner since the implementation of the ban six years ago. According to Dmitriew, within two years of the ban, the city saw a 41 percent decrease in polystyrene litter.
“Polystyrene is far from a perfect substance but it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t seriously impact people who are having trouble making ends meet,” said Andrew Mozsel, a representative for the New York Restaurant Association. He mentions that smaller mom and pop restaurants as well as ethnic restaurants would most likely be affected.
Dmitriew said that San Francisco’s government was concerned about the impact on businesses, and admitted that polystyrene is the cheapest substance around. He said that the city issued an ordinance, saying that any restaurant can apply for a waiver if they feel that they will face economic hardship. In reality, he said, only two restaurants asked for a waiver, out of more than 4,500 food establishments citywide, and the city was more than happy to help the establishments out.
Most restaurants and diners on the Upper East Side that we spoke with, like Three Star Diner on East 76th and 1st Avenue, and Gracie’s Corner Diner on East 86th and 1st Avenue, said that they do not use polystyrene cups or plates, and so the ban would not affect them much.
“We haven’t used Styrofoam in over 15 years. It’s flimsy and doesn’t hold up well. Hot food starts to melt the Styrofoam. We like to use hard, clear plastic,” said Gus Klimis, the owner of East Side Eatery on 1st Avenue and 91st Street.
“Most of our prepared foods have to be heated up, so Styrofoam wouldn’t work. So we don’t use Styrofoam,” said Garman Calle, the manager of E.A.T. on 3rd Avenue and 81st Street.
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