Judge Trashes NYC’s Styrofoam Ban

Restaurants and delis once again have the green light to give Gotham residents polystyrene foam cups and containers.

(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Sep 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Gotham residents who love plastic foam coffee cups and take-out boxes from restaurants—the same plastic foam that can break into tiny pieces, sicken marine life, and pollute the world’s waterways—are in luck. On Tuesday, a Manhattan judge overturned New York City’s nascent ban on Styrofoam, ruling that the material, which most recycling plants aren’t equipped to recycle, can be recycled.

“We disagree with the ruling,” Ishanee Parikh, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, said in a statement. “These products cause real environmental harm, and we need to be able to prevent nearly 30,000 tons of expanded polystyrene waste from entering our landfills, streets, and waterways. We are reviewing our options to keep the ban in effect.” the mayor’s office said it will appeal the ruling.

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Americans toss 25 billion Styrofoam cups in the garbage each year, according to the EPA, and 500 years from now those coffee cups will still be in landfills. That nonbiodegradable reality has led several cities and Washington, D.C., to enact bans on the material.

New York City’s prohibition on Styrofoam—which is the brand name for polystyrene foam, a form of nonbiodegradable plastic—went into effect on July 1, and restaurants and corner delis in the Big Apple had until January 2016 to make the shift. A coalition of eateries and plastic foam producers filed suit against the city in April to stop the ban, but some chains, such as Dunkin’ Donuts, willingly made the switch to containers made from more environmentally friendly materials.

In her decision, however, Judge Margaret A. Chan of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan called the city’s effort to ban packaging, cups, and containers made from Styrofoam “arbitrary and capricious,” reported The New York Times. Chan wrote that Sanitation Department Commissioner Kathryn Garcia did not take into account industry estimates that NYC could save $400,000 per year selling used Styrofoam.

Most recycling plants don’t have the proper equipment to process Styrofoam if it’s stained or has residue from food or drink. That means if a container made from the material is stained by a half-eaten slice of lasagna a New Yorker took home, it can’t be recycled until it’s clean.

That sounds reasonable until you remember that most people aren’t down to wash a Styrofoam take-out box before they chuck it. After all, if they wanted to do dishes, they’d have stayed in and cooked dinner. Chan pointed out that New York City officials said in January that Styrofoam was not recyclable, and they hadn’t found buyers for the dirty foam.

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According to Chan’s ruling, however, New York City ignored offers from Dart Container Company, a Styrofoam producer in Michigan, to upgrade sorting machinery at NYC recycling plants so that 90 percent of the foam could be recycled, reported the Times.

Eric A. Goldstein, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, expressed skepticism over Dart Container Company’s ability to follow through on its Styrofoam recycling promises.

“There’s not a single major city in the nation that has successfully implemented a recycling program for used polystyrene food containers, and the reason is simple: It doesn’t make economic sense,” Goldstein told the Times.

As for what will happen to the remaining 10 percent of Styrofoam coffee cups and containers the upgraded recycling machines wouldn’t be able to process, the bellies of sea turtles and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are waiting.