NYC declares war on polystyrene

Posted on March 5th, 2013 by Shelley Welton

Teresa Parejo Navajas
Professor of Law
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (Spain)

Mayor Bloomberg has declared war on polystyrene (Styrofoam), a material that is generally used for fast-food packaging, due to its “destructive” impact on the environment. Most forms of Styrofoam are, to some extent, recyclable, but there aren’t many facilities that accept this material for recycling. Styrofoam is non-biodegradable and when incinerated it becomes very toxic and produces very little energy from combustion. All this is to say that there really isn’t a good disposal method for Styrofoam. Fortunately, however, it is a product that is very easy to replace! For that reason, Bloomberg announced that he will work with the New York City Council Speaker, Christine Quinn, to adopt a new statute that will prohibit the use of polystyrene in the food trays that are so popular in NYC’s shops, restaurants and delis. The Mayor will not, however, pursue an all-out ban: “coffee-to-go” and “doggie bags” would survive.

This is good news not only for the environment, but also for the City budget, since the Styrofoam ban could save millions of dollars a year. Estimates suggest that prohibiting styrofoam in food trays could save up to $20 per ton of food waste processed. On the other hand, restaurants may be less pleased, as these containers are likely to replaced by paper ones, which are up to four times more expensive.

There is much yet to be done but it is good to see that the US, the world’s largest consumer, in absolute terms, and the largest per-capita consumer (aaa.sorg), is moving (at least in one of its most important cities) towards more sustainable consumption patterns. However, the scope of action needed to address environmental problems will require deeper changes in our consumption culture. The next step, perhaps, is not only to replace Styrofoam with paper, but to reduce the amount of disposable containers that we use. The “to go” has got to go!


  1. Styrofoam has the same combustion calories per gram as petroleum, and produces the same combustion by-products.

    incineration is an excellent method for disposal.

    Styrofoam is a aerated foam of polystrene, and is composed solely of carbon and hydrogen.

    possibly you are thinking of the pvc which does contain chlorine.

  2. Styrofoam – a petroleum byproduct – is not a benign product. A 1986 EPA report on solid waste named the polystyrene manufacturing process the 5th largest creator of hazardous waste. The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire
    Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the
    combustion of polystyrene foam. Styrofoam leaches harmful chemicals, including styrene and benzene, into hot foods and liquids. In 2011, Styrene – was added to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “reasonably anticipated to be carcinogen” list, and Benzene is listed as a “known carcinogen.” That may be why dozens of counties across the U.S. have banned it.
    Styrofoam is difficult to recycle – it increases the cost of recycling by as much as $20 per ton in NYC – and it never biodegrades. It’s also a major source of ocean pollution (

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