In his recent State of the City address, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he would work with New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to ban Styrofoam plastic food packaging.
While Bloomberg is often poked fun at for banning a number of things, getting rid of Styrofoam is a popular goal for many cities including Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland, and Seattle. The use of polystyrene has been linked to many negative health, environmental, and economic effects.
Polystyrene is derived from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. It contains styrene and benzene. In 2011, the National Institutes of Health added styrene to its list of substances "reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens." Studies that have focused on individuals who work with styrene have shown an increased risk of leukemia, lymphoma, and genetic damage. According to OSHA, benzene exposure can also lead to leukemia, as well as bone marrow and blood production issues.
Since there is currently no viable way to recycle polystyrene after its use, New Yorkers must pay to have it shipped to landfills outside of the state at a price tag of $80 per ton (New York’s landfill, Freshkills, was closed due to the negative health and property value effects of having a colossal pile of carcinogenic garbage). When Styrofoam is thrown into city recycling bins, the cost taxpayers absorb to remove it is an additional $20 per ton.
It’s not uncommon for polystyrene to find its way into the ocean, where it can endanger the lives of marine animals and tourists. Oceanographer and chemist Charles Moore described plastics as "sponges" for toxic chemicals and can be "a million times more toxic than the seawater itself."
"Something that we know is environmentally destructive, that is costing taxpayers money, and that is easily replaceable, is something we can do without," Bloomberg said. "And don't worry: the doggie bag and the coffee cup will survive just fine."
In an absurd press release, a Dunkin Donuts spokesman said that "A polystyrene ban will not eliminate waste or increase recycling; It will simply replace one type of trash with another." Yet, in their 2010 Corporate Responsibility Report Dunkin Donuts wrote "We know many people are concerned about the environmental impact of Dunkin’ Donuts foam cups. We are too; in fact, it’s our #1 sustainability priority."
The report went on to say that they were unable to find another cup that fit their triple criteria: "cost, performance, and environmental impact." It conveniently emphasized environmental issues with every other cup, but failed to name any of the ways in which Styrofoam cups are damaging to the earth.
Some small businesses are worried about the increased cost of providing metal recyclable food containers. Paul Gopaul, an owner of a popular food truck, told the Huffington Post that he buys Styrofoam containers in packs of 175 for $15. Aluminum containers cost $20 per pack. Yet that’s only about a 3-cent difference per container. If food trucks raised prices by only 5 cents, they’d not only make up for the extra cost, but also earn a bigger profit.
The elimination of Styrofoam isn’t a simple "top-down" decree; grassroots groups throughout New York have been campaigning tirelessly to eliminate or minimize the usage of Styrofoam. Some of those organizations include the Surfrider Foundation, Styrofoam out of Schools, Cafeteria Culture, and GrowNYC. Concerned citizens have formed petitions to pressure companies such as Dunkin Donuts, Jamba Juice, and Chick-fil-A to use responsible containers.
Other state legislators like Assembly member Brian Kavanagh, Senator Liz Krueger, and Senator Eric Schneiderman joined the League of Conservation voters to protest after McDonald's announced it would be selling sweet tea in Styrofoam cups.
The reality is that even with all we know about the dangers of Styrofoam, many businesses are not willing to absorb even a small extra cost for responsible packaging. This is an instance where firm leadership and legislation are necessary to create change. Increased usage of eco-friendly packaging would also lead to more research and development within the packaging, eventually lowering the financial and environmental cost of its production.