NYC declares war on polystyrene

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!