New York State Moves to Ban Foam Food Containers

Luis Ferré-Sadurní for New York Times

Originally published in New York Times

The previously ubiquitous puffy containers began to disappear this year from New York City delis, takeout joints and halal food trucks. They were banished from other pockets of the state as well, and in many cities around the world.

Soon, foam containers, plates and cups may vanish for good in New York State.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is proposing a statewide ban on single-use food containers and packing peanuts made of polystyrene, a pollutant that is not biodegradable and is difficult to recycle.

The ban, which requires the approval of the Legislature, would make New York the most populous state to enact such a prohibition and only the second to do so. (Maine banned the foam products in May.)

“From takeout containers to packing peanuts, this material is everywhere and it will continue to pollute our waters and harm our wildlife for generations to come if we do not act,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement last week.

The governor’s proposal is modeled after a similar prohibition that took effect in January in New York City after years of legal wrangling and intense opposition. The plan is part of a 2020 agenda that Mr. Cuomo will unveil at the annual State of State speech on Jan. 8, but that his office began to tease out in piecemeal fashion this month.

If passed, the proposed ban would take effect by 2022 and would be the latest in a streak of environmental measures enacted since Democrats took full control of the Legislature this year for the first time in nearly a decade.

A statewide prohibition on most types of single-use plastic bags will take effect in March. In June, the state also approved an ambitious climate plan meant to all but eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in 30 years by shifting to renewable energy sources like wind power, and by curbing the use of gasoline-powered cars.

Lawmakers have also introduced bills that would reduce the use of plastic straws and require that plastic bottles be made of at least 75 percent recycled material.

The foam-container ban has good odds of passing: The Legislature approved the overwhelming majority of the governor’s 2019 agenda.

Although legislative leaders said they would reserve judgment until their conferences received concrete bill language, Senator Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat and the chairman of the environmental conservation committee, said that he was confident that the Legislature would approve the ban.

“We are all aware that we have a solid waste crisis and that Washington is doing very little to nothing about it,” he said.

Hundreds of local governments in the United States, including in San Francisco and San Jose, Calif., have banned foam containers since the late 1980s. In New York, Albany, Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties have enacted such prohibitions.

“The stuff stays around for several generations and it doesn’t break down in the environment,” said Peter Iwanowicz, the executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “The bottom line is there are readily available alternatives that do break down.”

Still, the proposal will probably be a target of fierce lobbying efforts. The restaurant industry and a trade group representing chemical companies have already signaled their concerns.

Andrew Fasoli, a spokesman for the trade group, the American Chemistry Council, said that the solution to foam waste was not to ban the material, but to invest in advanced recycling technology capable of processing polystyrene.

Last year, public filings show, the chemistry council spent more than $280,000 in part to lobby against proposed foam bans in Putnam County and New York City. The group spent more than $170,000 in the first half of this year lobbying state lawmakers as well as local jurisdictions weighing polystyrene and plastic bans.

Mr. Fasoli said that a ban would affect four upstate polystyrene plants that employ about 1,500 people and that it would force restaurants to pay double for alternative containers.

“Banning individual products does not reduce the amount of waste, it merely changes the composition of the waste cycle,” he said in a statement. “The current state of New York’s recycling infrastructure is not in the position to deal with many of the alternatives, which would lead to much the alternative containers and packaging still being sent to the landfill.”

In pursuing a statewide ban, Mr. Cuomo could learn from New York City’s tumultuous, yearslong crusade to ban plastic-foam containers, which are commonly, but incorrectly, referred to as Styrofoam containers. (Styrofoam is a product made by Dow Chemical that is not used in disposable food containers.)

Several mayors have taken up the cause. In 1987, Edward I. Koch famously called on McDonald’s to stop using foam boxes (the company eventually did). In 2007, Bill de Blasio, a City Council member at the time, introduced a bill to ban foam trays in schools.

But a citywide prohibition did not gain traction until 2013, when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg proposed banning the material. In 2015, Mr. de Blasio put the ban into effect, but it was quickly stymied by a lawsuit filed by restaurant owners, manufacturers and recyclers.

The measure was tied up in court for years, as opponents argued that they had a feasible plan for recycling such containers. A judge ultimately sided with the city.

So began the eradication of the familiar foam clamshells around the city this year. Mailers went out to thousands of businesses alerting them of the law change and, in July, those that violated the ban began to be hit with fines.

“We did an enormous amount of outreach and that really allowed businesses to work through their stock and get other materials,” Kathryn Garcia, the city’s sanitation commissioner, said.

Kevin Dugan, the New York State Restaurant Association’s director of government affairs, said that many restaurants had started to phase out foam containers in 2015, unaware that the ban was being fought over in court. The three years of litigation that followed, it turned out, served as a grace period for food purveyors in the city to adjust.

Just 45 small business owners were deemed eligible for a waiver meant to exempt businesses that can prove the ban would be a financial hardship, according to city data.

Now dining establishments upstate, from rib joints to Chinese restaurants, are bracing for potential changes, even though some have already abandoned the foam containers.

Brooks House of BBQ, a third-generation family restaurant in Oneonta known for its large charcoal barbecue pit and tangy chicken, recently switched to containers made of pulp, a recycled paperboard.

Ryan Brooks, the owner, said that he made the switch when one of the counties he caters to, Albany, banned polystyrene containers. The pulp containers are more than twice as expensive, he said, and the restaurant absorbed the added cost rather than raise prices.

“I don’t like costs, believe me,” Mr. Brooks said. “But it was important for us to listen to what our customers are looking for and feel better about it. We know what foam can do.”