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Nassau County poised to ban takeout Styrofoam food packaging

A bill expected to pass the county Legislature would make it illegal to sell or distribute takeout food containers, cups and other packaging materials made of polystyrene foam.

A proposed Nassau County law would be ban

A proposed Nassau County law would be ban polystyrene foam takeout food containers.  Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Nassau County legislators are expected to vote Monday to ban takeout food containers, cups and other packaging materials made of polystyrene foam commonly known as Styrofoam.

The bill would make it illegal to sell or distribute polystyrene products in the county beginning in January. Fines would range from $500 to $2,500, and county Department of Consumer Affairs would handle enforcement.

Suffolk County and New York City have enacted similar measures this year as part of a national movement away from plastic packaging materials and toward products that are more biodegradable.

Polystyrene foam products are not recycled and are known to pollute air and waterways. Restaurants, cafeterias and food trucks use the containers because of their low cost and ability to maintain the temperature of food and drink.

“The problem with Styrofoam is that it doesn’t go away,” said Legis. Denise Ford, a Long Beach Democrat who caucuses with Republicans. “It stays forever.”

Ford, who co-sponsored the bill along with Legis. Debra Mule (D-Freeport) and Legis. Laura Schaefer (R-Westbury), said the legislation gives restaurants and other businesses enough time to use up their supplies and find alternatives.

“You don’t want government regulating everything in everyone’s life,” said Schaefer, chairwoman of the legislature’s environmental and planning committee. “But we have seen the evidence of what these products can do and you can’t turn a blind eye and say it's not impacting us in a negative way.”

Legis. Carrié Solages (D-Valley Stream), who sits on the environmental committee, said he supports the ban. But he expressed concern about added costs for small businesses, restaurants and food trucks in his district, many of which are run by new immigrants.

“I’m concerned this will be an extra cost of doing business and will make it difficult for them to survive here in Nassau County, where you have not only high residential property taxes but also high commercial property taxes,” Solages said.

Solages also questioned whether the county can effectively communicate the law to business owners who face language barriers.

Rafael Hernandez, 29, who helps run Los Romeritos, his family's Mexican restaurant on Hempstead Turnpike in Elmont, said businesses use Styrofoam for takeout food because "it's convenient and cheap." The restaurant relies heavily on the large Latino population working at Belmont Park, he said.

"It will be more pricey," Hernandez said. "We might have to raise our prices a little." 

Hernandez said he is aware of the likely ban, but "for now we'll keep using it. Eventually, we'll switch over because we have to." 

Kevin Dugan, director of government affairs for the New York State Restaurant Association, which opposed New York City's law, said moving away from Styrofoam will increase business costs.

“We are hopeful that the county will incorporate a waiver process where businesses would be able to apply for exemptions if they can demonstrate that this increase will meaningfully harm their bottom lines,” Dugan said.

Dugan said businesses could face packaging cost increases of up to 40 percent, depending on the Styrofoam substitute they use. 

Mule said she did not expect the ban to burden businesses.

“Alternatives are going to be more available and cheaper," she said. Also, the environmental "cost of Styrofoam is much much worse — this is something we have to do. There’s ... a cost to the environment and therefore to everyone.”

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said “Nassau was the missing link” given that neighboring counties have banned Styrofoam.

Earlier this year, the GOP-controlled Nassau County Legislature refused to take up a proposal to ban distribution of disposable plastic shopping bags.

The new state budget includes a ban on the bags. The statewide ban does not apply to paper shopping bags, although counties and cities will have the option to charge a fee on each paper bag.

Legis. Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), presiding officer of the Nassau legislature, has called a paper bag fee "dead on arrival" in the county.

"It is difficult to survive here in Nassau, and to have another tax imposed on our residents is simply not tolerable," Nicolello said last month.

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