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New York state to ban polystyrene food containers in 2022

romana klee

On Jan. 1, New York state’s restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses will no longer be able to offer polystyrene foam containers for takeout food and beverages.

A new law extends a ban on the containers in New York City to the rest of the state and is aimed at cutting down on litter from the non-biodegradable material, which is better known by its brand name, Styrofoam.

In addition to stores and restaurants, the law applies to caterers, food carts, delis and cafeterias, as well as hospitals, nursing homes, schools and universities.

Polystyrene is a major contributor to microplastic pollution in the oceans and on land. It’s made from a range of chemicals and the fossil fuels petroleum and natural gas in a method similar to making plastics, a process linked to climate change.

Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator and head of Bennington College’s Beyond Plastics project, said the material is also a potential human carcinogen and can leach into food and beverages. She welcomes the ban.

“I think New Yorkers are getting this fantastic New Year’s gift with a ban on polystyrene,” Enck said.

The manufacture and sale of foam peanuts for packing will also be banned.

Grocery stores and butchers will still be allowed to use polystyrene containers for the sale of raw meat, poultry, fish and eggs.

Enck said the ban on the products has been successfully in effect in New York City for more than a year. Some upstate areas, including Albany County, the city of Troy and portions of Long Island, have enacted their own bans.

“There are so many alternatives. Restaurants can use aluminum, they can use paper, they can use glass,” Enck said. “What we hope we’ll see is a real shift to reusable packaging.”

Businesses that don’t follow the law face potential fines of $250 for a first-time offense to up to $1,000 for a third violation in a single calendar year.

State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said the state will not be enforcing the law right away.

“Anytime we pass a new law, and it goes into effect, there’s always a period of education and outreach up front,” said Seggos, who added the agency has spent the past year informing tens of thousands of businesses of the upcoming change.

“Most understand that it’s coming,” he said. “But some will be laggards.”

Seggos said there are waivers available for small and nonprofit enterprises that might have trouble complying with the law. Those eligible include community meal programs, food pantries, and religious organizations that bring in $500,000 or less for their ventures. He said so far, about 90 entities have applied for waivers.

Erika Ringwald, a spokeswoman for the DEC, could not give a date for when enforcement might begin, but said the agency will put in place a system for the public to file complaints against businesses that violate the law. The DEC will investigate those complaints and determine whether to provide more guidance and education before resorting to fines.

Enck said customers will be able to help the environmental agency find out which businesses are not obeying the law.

“The first thing to do, if you’re comfortable, is to have a nice conversation with the manager, point out the law,” Enck said. “And then if the store is still using polystyrene, send an email and let the DEC know.”

Unlike in 2020, when New York banned single-use plastic shopping bags, there has been no organized opposition to the law. A website set up by Dart Container Corp., a major manufacturer of the polystyrene products, says the products are safe and cause no harm to consumers.

The state’s restaurant industry is largely supportive of the ban. In a statement, Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, said "adopting more sustainable practices is necessary in the face of the climate crisis.” She also said many restaurants have already adapted and are using biodegradable takeout containers.

But she warned that current supply chain challenges might make alternative containers more expensive and harder to come by.

Enck said there’s no guarantee that polystyrene manufacturers will remain silent, though. She said they have until Dec. 31 to go to court to try to stop the ban.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.