Polystyrene cups are bagged up after being manufactured at the...

Polystyrene cups are bagged up after being manufactured at the DART Container Corp., plant in Lodi, Calif. In an effort to double the city's recycling rate by 2017, New York City Sanitation officials are considering a ban on to-go containers made of polystyrene foam. (2011) Credit: AP

Here is what New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed ban on plastic-foam food containers is not. It is not another coup d'etat for the nanny state. It is not part of the Bloomberg campaign to reduce smoking, or outlaw 16-ounce sugar-sweetened drinks, or nudge the public to count calories more closely.

It is not even about Styrofoam, although the mayor did use that term when he touted the idea in his State of the City address last week. Dow Chemical Co., which manufactures the material, says Styrofoam is used for building insulation -- not for cups, trays and food containers.

So what is Bloomberg's plan all about?

His office says it would save the city millions of dollars on disposal costs while doing something environmentally smart. Glen Cove has a similar ban already in place on nonbiodegradable food containers. So do Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Other jurisdictions on Long Island should consider similar policies.

Though the American Chemistry Council begs to differ, Bloomberg argues that polystyrene foam is virtually impossible to recycle, never biodegrades, harms the environment and may be hazardous to our health. It costs taxpayers money, and the city can easily do without it, he says.

He makes a strong case. But of course, not all food service firms agree with his facts or logic, either. Coffee shop and takeout store owners grumble that they might have to use pricier packaging and pass the cost on to their customers. Dunkin' Donuts says its foam cups insulate better than paper ones and obviate the need to double-cup, add cup sleeves or use extra napkins. It also says its foam cups are recyclable.

Definitions are everything in a debate of this kind, and so is science. What does recyclable mean? What does biodegradable mean? The mayor's office is defining its terms now for legislation it will ask the City Council to pass. But this much is clear: Nonbiodegradables can't be good for the environment or for taxpayers who forever must pay disposal costs. Greener packaging is sure to be the better investment in the long run. Bloomberg has hit on a problem that must be solved.