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National Restaurant Association - New York City latest to pass polystyrene foam ban

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New York City latest to pass polystyrene foam ban

Restaurateurs and other small business operators in New York City will be able to use polystyrene foam packaging next year after local lawmakers passed an amended bill pushing off a total ban until the city evaluates whether such packaging can be recycled.

The legislation, passed Dec. 19 by the New York City Council, would ban polystyrene foam packaging beginning July 2015 if the city determines during a test phase that recycling is not a valid option. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose administration proposed the legislation last February, is expected to sign it into law before Dec. 31, when he leaves office.

Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, said packaging manufacturers are optimistic that recycling can work in New York City, as it has in some other U.S. cities, like Houston, Baltimore and Concord, Calif. She added that the FPI supports recycling over bans.

"What we’re looking to do is avoid government intervention that would stop restaurateurs from using the products they choose to use,” she said.

Nevertheless, James Versocki, counsel for the New York State Restaurant Association’s New York City chapter, said his group wants its members to be prepared for the probability of a polystyrene foam ban.

“We have one year to see if recycling will work, but we question the city's commitment to recycling polystyrene foam," he said. “[We don't] know the logistics of recycling polystyrene at this time, but the manufacturers are going to put a lot of effort into this.”

Mike Levy, senior director of the American Chemistry Council’s plastics foodservice packaging group, said he’s encouraged the New York city council is taking the one-year wait-and-see stance on recycling before implementing the ban.

“Recycling polystyrene foam in New York could help reduce the city’s waste stream, create a new source of revenue for the city and limit the burden a ban would have placed on small businesses,” he said.

If a plan to recycle the polystyrene is not feasible, the ban could end up costing the city’s businesses, consumers and taxpayers nearly $100 million a year, a study conducted for the ACC found earlier this year. Conducted last March by MB Public Affairs, the study indicated that replacing polystyrene foam food-and-drink containers with even the lowest-priced alternative containers would cost approximately $91.3 million per year, an increase of about 94 percent, or some $57 million, over current packaging costs.

Versocki said the New York State Restaurant Association made sure the city council inserted a small business hardship exemption into the legislation for operators who say they would be hard hit by increased packaging costs associated with nonfoam materials.

“We really wanted the city council to recognize there will be cost factors associated with this ban that could hurt small businesses,” he said. “We have made sure an exemption for businesses with annual sales of $500,000 or less was included in the legislation, but operators would have to apply with the sanitation department to get it. If they do get the exemption, they will be able to use polystyrene foam products [despite the ban].”

Proponents of recycling say they’re optimistic that the one-year postponement will give them the opportunity to find an alternative to the ban that is cost effective and environmentally sound.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about foam,” Levy said. “We really need to help people understand the comparisons between foam and other materials that would be used [in the event of a ban]. Foam actually uses less energy and raw material than other nonfoam substitutes.”

Versocki noted that even though packaging manufacturers plan to encourage and promote the recycling of polystyrene foam, “It’s going to take a little time to see if [it works] or not. We’re encouraging operators in New York City to keep an eye on this issue.”

In addition to the legislation passed in New York City, Albany County, N.Y., passed a law last month banning the use of polystyrene foam, as has Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; Seattle; and Amherst, Mass. Washington, D.C., also is exploring the possibility of a ban, and San Jose, Calif., is looking at the enactment of a ban beginning next year, though a ballot petition is underway to give voters an opportunity to decide whether recycling could work there instead.

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