NYC Enacts Styrofoam Ban; World Does Not End

Styrofoam in NYC will soon be history.
Styrofoam in NYC will soon be history.
Renee Comet via Wikimedia Commons

On July 1 New York implemented a controversial citywide ban on Styrofoam. Pursuant to Local Law 142 of the city's administrative code, the new policy does away with single-serve foam cups, beach coolers, takeout containers — even those pesky packaging peanuts. Because these items can't be recycled, Mayor Bill de Blasio's office estimates the ban will remove up to 30,000 tons of annual waste from landfills and waterways.

Sounds like something we can all get behind, right?

Not exactly.

A coalition called Restaurant Action Alliance NYC, along with the American Chemistry Council lobbying group, opposed the ban when it was proposed by de Blasio's predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, in 2013. In April of this year, Restaurant Action Alliance NYC sued the city, arguing, among other things, that Styrofoam (a/k/a polystyrene foam, a/k/a E.P.S.) is indeed recyclable.

Some of the city's smaller restaurants, meanwhile, worry that the new law might threaten their very existence.

But at the overwhelming majority of eateries around town, Wednesday was business as usual. "Many restaurants currently use sustainable food containers, or at a minimum have transitioned to non-foam containers prior to the ban taking effect," points out Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, a local trade group. "For those restaurants who haven’t, we’ve connected them with experts to discuss alternate packaging options that will hold the quality of their food."

Businesses that were late to catch on are likely to see an adverse impact on their bottom line, at least initially. "There will certainly be an increase in cost for restaurants that need to change their containers," concedes Rigie. "So there’s always a chance their customers may see a slight increase in menu prices."

How much of an increase? Grace Best, marketing director of Imperial Bag & Paper Co., tells the Voice that the hurt depends on "the option they choose and whether the business is switching a cup, plate, or hinged container. There are roughly three different types of foam alternatives that we can provide," Best says, estimating the average cost increase at anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent.

In a press release ushering in the ban, de Blasio pointed out that "if more cities across the country follow our lead and institute similar bans, those alternatives will soon become more plentiful and will cost less."

Rigie notes that the city included a "hardship exemption" for nonprofits and businesses with less than $500,000 a year in revenue. There's also a six-month grace period that gives all businesses until January 1, 2016, to comply with the ban. After that, violations are punishable by fines. (According to the city, for the first year of the ban, businesses will be issued a warning in lieu of a fine.)

It all seems reasonable to the businesses that were in compliance long before the ban was enacted. "You can't survive unless you're using a product that's detrimental to society? I think that's a weak argument," contends Ross Smirnoff, counter manager at Dizzy's Diner in Park Slope. Although a large portion of Dizzy's profit comes from takeout, Smirnoff says, the eatery always resisted Styrofoam. "Adapt or die," he says. "New York City isn't going to miss you."


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