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State readies ban on Styrofoam food containers: How the law will work

Polystyrene foam cups of the type that will

Polystyrene foam cups of the type that will be banned across New York State beginning Jan. 1. Credit: Newsday / Ken Sawchuk

ALBANY — Those polystyrene clam shell containers for take-home food, Styrofoam cups from restaurants and the countless "packing peanuts" will go the way of plastic grocery bags under a new New York State law that takes effect Jan. 1.

The law bans the sale or distribution of the ubiquitous foam packaging that pollutes waterways and stuffs landfills across the state.

WHAT TO KNOW

The sale and distribution of polystyrene take-home containers for food, drinks and other uses will be banned under a new state law taking effect Jan. 1.

Backers say the ubiquitous foam packaging pollutes waterways, and that its production creates a major source of air pollution and diminishes the ozone layer.

New Yorkers can provide input on how the law is implemented during a public comment period that is open through Nov. 22. 

A public comment period on the foam products ban is open through Nov. 22, and could shape how the law is implemented.

Here is why the new law was enacted, how New Yorkers still can influence how it will be enforced, and how it will impact manufacturers, retailers and consumers:

What is in the law?

The law says no food service provider or store in New York can "sell, offer for sale, or distribute disposable food service containers that contain expanded polystyrene foam … or distribute polystyrene loose fill packaging." That covers bowls, cartons, cups, lids, plates, trays and other single-use products. Food service providers include pushcarts, cafeterias, schools and colleges.

When does the ban begin?

The law takes effect Jan. 1, 2022. The law doesn’t apply to New York City or counties that already have bans that are at least as strict as the state's.

In 2019, Suffolk and Nassau counties banned polystyrene and subjected violators to fines starting at $500, and ranging to $2,500 for repeat offenses, according to the local laws.

It was unclear Friday whether the state statute would supersede the county laws.

The state law requires counties to file written declarations that they plan to administer and enforce their own bans rather than be governed by the state law.

For example, Suffolk County's ban doesn't have the exemption for soup kitchens and food pantries included in the state ban, and the discrepancy would have to be discussed.

Neither Nassau nor Suffolk had filed a declaration as of Friday, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. There was no immediate comment from county officials.

What is polystyrene?

Most people know polystyrene products under the trade name Styrofoam, and is one of the most common plastics in use today.

The petroleum-based insulation dates to the 19th century, but wasn't produced extensively in the United States until the 1950s.

The expanded foam material is considered non-biodegradable since decay takes 500 years or more.

However, the material has been used widely by manufacturers and retailers because of its low cost.

Polystyrene is rarely recycled. It requires a process that long has been considered cost-prohibitive for large-scale recycling.

Polystyrene producers say there are methods under development that could make recycling more feasible.

McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and other fast food restaurants already have begun phasing out the use of polystyrene containers, replacing them with paper packaging.

Are there health concerns about polystyrene?

The National Academy of Sciences says research so far shows the basic chemical, styrene, is "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."

Some studies show small amounts of polystyrene can leach into the foods the containers keep warm or cold, and that reheating containers in a microwave oven can release more of the chemical.

Other studies blame polystyrene for health issues including fatigue, restlessness and skin irritation.

In a 2009 study, Rutgers University researchers found the chemical, "poses a threat to human life as well as the environment. Styrene can leech into food from polystyrene food ware. Foam cups lose weight during the time they are at used (meaning styrene is ingested by the consumer)."

What are the environmental concerns?

Polystyrene contributes to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch of litter floating near Japan, and between Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States.

Also, polystyrene containers easily break apart and the pieces are eaten by animals.

That can lead to animal deaths from blockages or introduce the chemical into the food chain where it eventually can be consumed by humans.

The manufacturing of polystyrene also is a major source of air pollution and diminishes the ozone layer, according to academic studies.

How are restaurants and manufacturers reacting to the law?

Restaurants and food retailers will have to pay more for paper and other products to replace polystyrene.

For consumers, the ban on polystyrene containers could mean cold food and drinks might not stay as cold and hot food and drinks may not stay as hot as when they were packaged in polystyrene.

The cost of alternative packaging may also be passed on to consumers.

Manufacturers also say banning polystyrene will add to landfills because alternatives such as doubling the thickness of paper cups create more waste.

The manufacturers recommend pursuing more efficient recycling of polystyrene rather than a ban.

Do the benefits of the ban outweigh such concerns?

"The ban creates enormous long-term benefits for the environment by helping to reduce litter, clean up the recycling stream, prevent macro/microplastic pollution, and bolster the ongoing transition to more sustainable alternatives," Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said in a statement.

States including New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, Maine, Maryland and Vermont, along with the District of Columbia, have polystyrene bans of some sort, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Are there any exemptions in the new law?

Polystyrene will be allowed for use with raw meat, pork, seafood, poultry or fish commonly sold in grocery stores for preparation at home, and in prepackaged food sealed or filled before purchase, according to the state DEC Conservation.

How can manufacturers, retailers and consumers shape the implementation of the law?

A public comment period is open until Nov. 22. The DEC will analyze the comments as it writes the rules and regulations necessary to implement the law.

Comments may be emailed to foamban@dec.ny.gov and should include the heading "Comments on Proposed Part 353" in the subject line.

Comments also may be mailed to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Recycling Outreach & Education Section, Division of Materials Management, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-7253.

Also, a livestreamed public hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Nov. 15.

The text of the draft regulation and details on how to register to comment before or during the hearing are at www.dec.ny.gov/regulations/123704.html.

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