Often overlooked, food-packaging containers are used in restaurants throughout the United States. Our fast food culture has made them so prevalent that cities are increasingly banning the use of polystyrene foam food packaging containers.
Recent legislation bans polystyrene food packaging containers in New York City
Following in the footsteps of cities such as Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle, New York City passed legislation in December 2013 effectively banning the use of polystyrene foam food packaging containers as of July 1, 2015. Albany, New York had recently passed a similar law the prior month. An exemption for businesses with annual sales of less than $500,000, however, was included in the legislation.
Environmental advocates point to environmental concerns
- Polystyrene in its foam and extruded (e.g. coffee cup lids) form is not recyclable in almost all U.S. cities, despite the common misperception that the recycling logo printed on it means it is.
- In its foam form factor, it is easily spread with wind, creating litter and pollution in streets and waterways.
- Chemicals in polystyrene foam may taint food as steam from hot food breaks down foam containers.
Recycling may not be enough
In yielding to anxiety from restaurants, the City later delayed total ban on polystyrene by amending the new law at the end of December of 2013.
After evaluating the feasibility of a polystyrene recycling program, legislation banning the use of polystyrene foam food packaging containers is expected to be signed back into law by the end of 2014. Though manufacturers of some polystyrene food packaging containers are optimistic, counsel for the New York State Restaurant Association’s New York City chapter wants members to prepare themselves for the ban.
Separately, New York City is adopting a city-wide curbside collection program for compostable items, known as “organic waste”. This would include not just food scraps but new compostable food take out containers which are already taking the place of polystyrene ones at more progressive food service establishments. The reason for this additional focus on reducing organic matter in landfills is because this material degrades fastest in a landfill. When it does, the landfill emits methane gas, one of the largest contributors to global warming. In fact, it's over 20 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Composting may help
Adopting composting programs that capture and reuse food wastes increases soil fertility and reduces the need for pesticides. In fact, some forward-thinking restaurant owners in New York City are already diverting their organic waste from the trash can to private compost haulers.
How changes to food packaging laws will affect the marketplace
While the success of recycling and composting programs in New York City still remains to be seen, the eventual phase-out of polystyrene foam food packaging containers appears inevitable nationwide. As both the city and the country look to more sustainable solutions, the marketplace and infrastructure are trending towards a greener future.
Ken Jacobus is CEO and founder of Good Start Packaging. He works with restaurants and other organizations around the U.S. to help them find the best sustainable alternatives to traditional plastic take out food containers. When not busy trying to eliminate landfills and plastic, he hikes, bikes, skis, reads, and plays with his family around his home in southern New Hampshire.