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Cuomo proposes ban on foam food containers


Gov. Andrew Cuomo is releasing some of his proposals for the new year early, and one of them is a plan to ban polystyrene -- a plastic foam commonly known as Styrofoam -- in takeout containers from restaurants and fast-food outlets.

It follows the passage of a new law to ban single-use plastic bags in New York, which takes effect in March.

The measure would make illegal the use of the plastic foam for single-use food containers by restaurants, caterers, food trucks, retail food stores, delis and grocery stores. It would still be allowed for packaging raw meat, fish and eggs. The proposal also would ban the packaging material known as packing peanuts.

Environmentalists praised the idea. Kate Kurera with Environmental Advocates of New York said the overuse of the plastic foam is a “scourge” since the material does not completely break down in landfills and lasts for hundreds of years.

“The polystyrene itself is non-biodegradable, so it poses a lot of hazards to human health and our environment,” said Kurera, who added it’s estimated that there are 3 million tons of polystyrene produced each year in the United States. 

“It’s just a tremendous amount of waste, really,” she said.

When the polystyrene does break down, it’s in the form of microplastics that can be ingested by wild birds, said Erin McGrath with Audubon New York.

“The problem is it doesn’t break down in their stomachs, so in the worst-case scenarios, it can build up to the point where they wind up starving,” said McGrath, who added initial research shows that the chemicals can be absorbed by the birds through their digestive systems.  

The plastics could also be ingested by animals higher up the food chain, including humans. 

Earlier this year, Audubon issued a report that found 389 bird species are on the brink of extinction due to climate change. McGrath said banning polystyrene foam is one step that can help. 

Alternatives include paper or cardboard containers, as well as biodegradable containers made out of corn- or soy-based materials.

There’s a bill in the Legislature, sponsored by Sen. Jen Metzger and Assemblywoman Pat Fahy that would allow people to bring their own containers to a restaurant to take home leftover food. Kurera said that is also a good step.  

The restaurant industry, which would have to make the biggest changes under the ban, is not on board with the proposal.  

Melissa Fleischut, president of the New York State Restaurant Association, said while the group wants “sensible measures that are good for our environment,” the ban might place financial burdens on restaurants that are already struggling to meet hundreds of state regulations. 

In a statement, she said her group will seek a “hardship provision” that would protect restaurants from “dramatic price increases” that could harm their businesses. 

McGrath said supporters of the ban are not against restaurants, and she supports the idea of the government helping them comply with the ban.  

“I’m sure there are going to be little tweaks that we're going to have to make here and there to make sure that everyone is accommodated,” McGrath said. “We want to make sure that small businesses in particular have enough time to react and to replace Styrofoam with other alternatives.”

But she said many restaurants, including big chains like McDonald's and Dunkin' (formerly Dunkin' Donuts), have already phased out the material.

The proposal would take effect in 2022. Kurera would like to see the ban imposed in 2021. She said the plastic bag ban will take effect less than a year after the measure was passed. She said she thinks the industries that use the plastic foam could be ready for the changes by then.

Cuomo’s proposal would also give the state Department of Environmental Conservation the authority to limit the use of other packaging materials in the future if they are deemed harmful to the environment.

Violators would face fines starting at $250 and growing to $2,000 for repeat offenses.

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.