The passage of New York City's new rule suggests resistance to single-use foam container bans is waning.
Get ready to say goodbye to your takeout clamshells, America—the days of foam containers really do appear to be numbered.
Last week the de Blasio administration in New York formally announced its anticipated ban on single-use polystyrene foam products, effective July 1, 2015. With the law, which covers everything from coffee cups and cafeteria trays to packing peanuts, New York City joins a list of more than 100 jurisdictions nationwide to ban the stuff. But it is by far the largest city to do so—and possibly the most important victory yet for the anti-foam movement.
The size and strength of New York’s restaurant industry should have made this latest foam ban a pitched battle; the law is bound to raise costs for many restaurant owners, forced to switch to rigid plastics and compostable materials that are, on average, 20 to 50 percent more expensive than their polystyrene counterparts. But resistance to the ban, largely bankrolled by the chemical industry, fizzled out in New York, as it has in city after city.
That's not to say there was no opposition to the New York ban—there was, and it was led by Dart Container Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer of foam products, and the American Chemistry Council, a trade group, which together spent roughly $1 million lobbying the city council. In fact in 2013, they convinced the council to consider recycling used foam containers instead of banning them outright. But a study by DMS Environmental Services found that most of these products would be prohibitively difficult to recycle, given their light weight and high degree of food contamination, and the market for the recycled products remains “speculative and untested.” In the end, the city’s sanitation commissioner rejected Dart’s recycling proposal and opted for a ban.
This story of stymied foam-lobby resistance is becoming a familiar one nationwide. In California, more than 70 cities have foam bans on the books, and a statewide ban almost went through in 2012. Seattle has banned foam containers since 2009, Portland, Oregon, since 2008. Washington, D.C. approved a ban last year, and Minneapolis just became the first city in the Midwest to do so.
When the issue came up for debate in Seattle, the plastic lobby hardly put up a fight—even after successfully defeating a plastic bag tax in 2009. According to city waste-prevention manager Dick Lilly, the American Chemistry Council “never went after anybody on the foam ban. They saw no chance of winning a referendum. … City by city, ACC has been helpless [against foam bans] because they’re so popular.”
In San Jose, which approved a foam ban in August 2013, initial resistance was quashed by a robust education and outreach program and declining costs for alternative packaging materials. The Mercury News reported that wholesale prices for recyclable and compostable alternatives have come down as more cities jump on the anti-foam bandwagon; these products are now “just as cheap” as foam. Though prices vary by market, the current wave of foam container legislation is likely to narrow the cost differences nationwide.
That should appease restaurant owners, who are often vocal opponents of foam bans; small, independent businesses like food carts and bodegas are generally thought to be the hardest hit. In New York, the state restaurant association prevailed on the city council to include a provision allowing businesses with less than $500,000 in annual revenue to apply for an exemption from the ban. The policy also includes a six-month grace period before enforcement begins January 1, 2016.
Concessions like these are not uncommon, but they might not always be necessary. Seattle required 100 percent participation when it banned foam in 2009, and Lilly estimates that the city has cited only about a dozen violators in the past five years. “If it’s a level playing field, if everybody in the city has to face the same modest increased cost, it’s not a problem,” he says.
In San Francisco, where a foam ban aligned with a mandatory composting ordinance, restaurants actually saw lowered costs from municipal garbage pickup fees when they made the switch to compostable materials. “Now San Franciscans get shocked if they see Styrofoam,” says Guillermo Rodriguez, communications director for the San Francisco Department of the Environment. “It’s not something that they’re used to seeing anymore, and the businesses have flourished and continued to do well. It’s not been an obstacle.”
In all likelihood, it won't be an obstacle for New York either. Last week the New York State Restaurant Association pledged its support for the foam ban, and spokesperson Chris Hickey says that any additional costs will be “nominal at best” and easily integrated into a business’s operational expenses. “We don’t feel that it’s going to extremely economically affect the businesses,” he says.
New Yorkers' love affair with takeout food is well documented. If a foam ban can make it there, it just might make it anywhere.