To Go: Plastic-Foam Containers, if the Mayor Gets His Way
by: Michael M. Grynbaum
It is the most humble of vessels for New York City foodstuffs, ubiquitous at Chinese takeout joints and halal street carts. In pre-Starbucks days, coffee came packaged in its puffy embrace.
But the plastic-foam container may soon be going the way of trans fats, 32-ounce Pepsis, and cigarettes in Central Park.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose regulatory lance has slain fatty foods, supersize sodas, and smoking in parks, is now targeting plastic foam, the much-derided polymer that environmentalists have long tried to restrict.
On Thursday, Mr. Bloomberg, in his 12th and final State of the City address, will propose a citywide ban on plastic-foam food packaging, including takeout boxes, cups and trays. Public schools would be instructed to remove plastic-foam trays from their cafeterias. Many restaurants and bodegas would be forced to restock.
In excerpts from his speech released on Wednesday, Mr. Bloomberg rails against plastic foam, even comparing it to lead paint. “We can live without it, we may live longer without it, and the doggie bag will survive just fine,” the mayor plans to say.
Call it the era of clamshell prohibition.
To become law, the ban would require approval by the City Council. The Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, suggested in an interview that she was open to a ban on plastic foam as part of a larger effort to increase recycling.
“It lives forever,” Ms. Quinn said. “It’s worse than cockroaches.”
The plastic foam used in food packaging is not actually Styrofoam, according to Dow Chemical, the company that makes Styrofoam. The company says its product is widely used as insulation, but not “in the manufacture of disposable foam products, such as cups, coolers, meat trays and packing peanuts.”
Officials at City Hall said a plastic-foam ban could save millions of dollars a year. Plastic foam, which is not biodegradable, can add up to $20 per ton in recycling costs when the city processes recyclable materials. The city handles about 1.2 million tons of food waste each year; the mayor’s office estimated that the city’s annual waste stream included about 20,000 tons of plastic foam.
New York led the nation in restricting smoking and sugary drinks, but the city is a relative latecomer to the antifoam trend: measures against the material are already in place in Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco and Seattle. Mr. Bloomberg has been only a sometime-ally of recycling advocates; early in his tenure, he called for the suspension of some recycling to save the city money.
Eric A. Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York, hailed the foam plan as “an important step forward,” saying it would bring environmental and quality-of-life benefits to the city.
Plastic foam, Mr. Goldstein said, “is so brittle.” He added: “It breaks into these tiny pieces, and it’s not easy to clean up. Getting rid of it means our parks, our streets, our waterways, will all be cleaner.”
The restaurant industry, which has complained about overregulation by City Hall, offered a more measured response on Wednesday.
“We have to consider what the costs will be for both government and the business owners who make the city run,” said Andrew Moesel, a spokesman for the New York State Restaurant Association. He noted that containers made of paper can often be more expensive than their foam counterparts.
Mr. Bloomberg is not the first mayor of New York City to propose a crackdown on foam. In 1987, Mayor Edward I. Koch joined a campaign to encourage fast-food restaurants to reduce their use of the product. McDonald’s later phased out foam boxes from its restaurants.
Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal is one element of a larger environmental protection effort he plans to pursue during his final year in office. In his speech, he will also pledge to install 1,000 recycling containers on sidewalks, doubling the current number.
The percentage of waste that is recycled by the city has fallen during the Bloomberg administration, to 15 percent today, from 23 percent in 2001. Mr. Bloomberg, in his speech, will call for the city to achieve a 30 percent recycling rate by 2017.
He will also propose taking the first steps toward city collection of food waste for composting, starting with a pilot program on Staten Island.
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