New York City Has Banned Plastic Foam Containers

Single-use foam products ‘cannot be recycled in a manner that is economically feasible, environmentally effective, and safe for employees,’ the city said

Radharc Images / Alamy Stock Photo

A big change is coming to food packaging in New York, the city where takeout reigns supreme —among some more than others. As Nikita Richardson reports for Grub Street, a citywide ban on single-use plastic foam containers went into effect on Tuesday, and food establishments have until the end of June to start complying with the new prohibition.

The ban targets single-service products made of expanded polystyrene, which resembles, but is often erroneously referred to as Styrofoam—a distinct brand of the Dow Chemical company that has never been used in food and beverage containers. New York stores and restaurants will no longer be permitted to sell or possess spongy foam items like takeout clamshells, cups, plates, bowls and trays. Packing peanuts are also banned.

Exceptions will be made for food items that were packaged before they reached New York’s stores and restaurants, for foam containers used to store raw meat, seafood or poultry, and for small business owners who can demonstrate that buying alternative, non-foam products will “create financial hardship.” But all other establishments have until June 30 to use up their polystyrene stock; after that point, they will be charged up to $1,000 per offense.

New York is cracking down on expanded polystyrene (or EPS) containers because, according to the city, they “cannot be recycled in a manner that is economically feasible, environmentally effective, and safe for employees as part of the City’s curbside recycling program.” The products are made by steaming beads of the polymer polystyrene until they expand to 50 times their original size, according to the BBC. And this process makes EPS products difficult to recycle. Each time an EPS bowl or plate is made, “[w]hat you need are virgin polystyrene beads,” Joe Biernacki, professor of chemical engineering at Tennessee Tech University, told the BBC in 2015.

Also problematic is the fact that polystyrene often ends up in marine environments, where it gets gobbled up by animals, causing blocked digestive systems and, ultimately, starvation. Additionally, some experts worry about the health implications for humans who eat fish and other sea creatures that have ingested bits of expanded polystyrene and other microplastics.

New York’s new ban comes after a years-long effort to outlaw foam containers. According to the New York Times’ Michael Gold, the prohibition was first proposed by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2013, and put into effect by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2015. A coalition of restaurant owners, manufacturers and recyclers promptly sued the city, and a judge ruled that city officials had not proffered enough evidence to show that polystyrene containers cannot be recycled. The coalition sued again when the city attempted to implement the ban once more in 2017—with the support of a new report—but this time, a judge ruled in favor of the city.

New York now joins a number of cities that have banned plastic foam products, among them Chicago, Honolulu, Boston and Washington, D.C., which this week became the second major U.S. city to prohibit restaurants and other businesses from using plastic straws—another product that has been a focus of activists hoping to cut back on single-use items that have a harmful impact on the environment.

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