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Cuomo Proposes Styrofoam Ban

Robert F. Bukaty

Governor Andrew Cuomo is releasing some of his proposals for the new year early, and one of them is a plan to ban polystyrene, a plastic foam which is commonly known as Styrofoam, in takeout containers from restaurants and fast food outlets. It follows the passage of a new law to ban single-use plastic bags in New York, which takes effect in March.

The measure would make illegal the use of the plastic foam for single-use food containers by restaurants, caterers, food trucks, retail food stores, delis and grocery stores. It would still be allowed for packaging raw meat, fish and eggs. The proposal would also ban the packaging materials known as packing peanuts.

Environmentalists praised the idea. Kate Kurera, with Environmental Advocates of New York, says the overuse of the plastic foam is a “scourge” since it does not completely break down in landfills and lasts for hundreds of years.   

“The polystyrene itself is non-biodegradable so it poses a lot of hazards to human health and our environment,” said Kurera, who said it’s estimated that there are 3 million tons of polystyrene produced each year in the U.S.

“It's just a tremendous amount of waste, really, " she said.    

When the polystyrene does break down, it’s in the form of micro plastics, and can be ingested by wild birds, says Erin McGrath, with Audubon New York.

“The problem is it doesn’t break down in their stomachs, so in the worst case scenarios it can build up to the point that they wind up  starving,” said McGrath, who said initial research shows that the chemicals can be absorbed by the birds through their digestive systems.  

The plastics could also be ingested by animals higher up the food chain, including humans.

Earlier this year, Audubon issued a report that found 389 bird species are on the brink of extinction due to climate change. McGrath says banning polystyrene foam is one step that can help.

Alternatives include paper or cardboard containers, as well as biodegradable containers made out of corn- or soy-based materials.

There’s a bill in the legislature, sponsored by Senator Jen Metzger and Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, that would allow people to bring their own containers to a restaurant in which to take home leftover food.

Kurera, with Environmental Advocates, says that is also a good step.

The restaurant industry, which would have to make the biggest changes under the ban, is not on board with the proposal.

Melissa Fleischut, president of the New York State Restaurant Association, says while the group wants “sensible measures that are good for our environment,” the ban might place financial burdens on restaurants that are already struggling to meet hundreds of state regulations.

In a statement, she says her group will seek a “hardship provision” that would protect restaurants from “dramatic price increases” that could harm their businesses.

McGrath, with Audubon New York, says supporters of the ban are not against restaurants, and she supports the government helping them comply with the ban.

“I’m sure there are going to be little tweaks here and there to make sure that everyone is accommodated,” McGrath said. “We want to make sure that small businesses in particular have enough time to react and to replace Styrofoam with other alternatives.”

But she says many restaurants, including big chains like McDonalds and Dunkin' (formerly Dunkin' Donuts), have already phased out the material.

The proposal would take effect in 2022. Kurera, with Environmental Advocates, would like to see the ban imposed sooner, in 2021. She says the plastic bag ban takes effect less than a year after the measure was passed. She says she thinks the industries that use the plastic foam could be ready for the changes by then.  

Cuomo’s proposal would also give the state Department of Environmental Conservation the authority to limit the use of other packing materials in the future if they are deemed harmful to the environment.

Violators would face fines starting at $250 and growing to $2,000 for repeat offenses.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.