Banning Plastic Foam

By Kristi Mexia

April 9, 2013 5 min read

In his last term in office, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is attempting to squeeze the juice out of the Big Apple. Over the course of his mayoral stint, he's said no to cigarettes and soda. Now Bloomberg plans to ban plastic foam, too.

The proposed plan has doughnut houses, Chinese takeout palaces and falafel joints alike seeing their stashes of plastic foam stolen. In his 2013 State of the City address, Bloomberg outlined his vendetta against the coffee cup staple. It is a product "that is virtually impossible to recycle and never biodegrades," Bloomberg said. "It's not just terrible for the environment. It's terrible for taxpayers. Styrofoam increases the cost of recycling by as much as $20 per ton."

Polystyrene, what Bloomberg refers to as Styrofoam, is a petroleum-based plastic. It is commonly mistaken for Styrofoam, a trade-name polystyrene foam product often used for housing installation. Polystyrene is a lightweight substance that is about 95 percent air, according to the Green Restaurant Association. That, combined with its insulation properties, is what makes polystyrene an excellent candidate for takeout orders.

Bloomberg says polystyrene is "something we know is environmentally destructive." The product is "costing taxpayers money," he says, and New Yorkers "can do without" it.

For Bloomberg's plastic foam-banning wish to come true, it would have to be approved by the New York City Council. But with the support of City Council members, such as Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who want to increase New York's overall recycling efforts, this should not pose a problem. Officials at City Hall, according to The New York Times' Michael Grynbaum, say a sanction against polystyrene products could save the city millions of dollars a year.

But a report from MB Public Affairs Inc., a political consulting company, says the ban would cost New Yorkers more money than it would save them in recycling costs.

The research in the report suggests that businesses and consumers replacing polystyrene products would be a direct cost resulting from the proposed ban. If plastic foam products were outlawed, it would force the public to purchase more expensive plastic or paper alternatives. Those direct costs are estimated to be at least $91.3 million, with an average cost increase of 94 percent.

"In other words, for every $1.00 now spent on plastic foam foodservice and drink containers, NYC consumers and businesses will have to spend at least $1.94 on the alternative replacements," says the MB Public Affairs report.

With existing food- and drink-related foam sales in New York already projected at $97.1 million, according to MB Public Affairs, the ban would nearly double the cost to businesses. The company says that its $93.1 million replacement cost is the minimum amount, estimated at a one-to-one replacement level. It does not take into account such practices as using two cups to hold a hot beverage.

Bloomberg's office estimates that the city handles about 1.2 million tons of food waste a year, including 20,000 tons of plastic foam. If MB Public Affairs' research is correct, the extra fees to replace polystyrene products would outweigh the $20 per ton it costs to recycle polystyrene.

Even though the ban might not be a cost-saving measure and polystyrene can be recycled, New Yorkers should consider polystyrene's effects on the environment. According to The Daily Green, polystyrene products "take eons to break down in the environment" and "can also release potentially toxic breakdown products (including styrene), particularly when heated."

This research supports the anti-polystyrene measures already enacted in Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Seattle. Whether Bloomberg's attempt to hop on the anti-polystyrene bandwagon will succeed is yet to be seen. But there are many sides to consider -- economically and environmentally -- with the proposal of an all-out polystyrene ban.

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