Why New York City has gone Styrofoam-free

It’s official. Six years and two lawsuits after then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg first proposed a ban on plastic-foam products, New York City is now a polystyrene- (or Styrofoam- as it’s more commonly called) free zone. New York City’s ban includes all single-use Styrofoam coffee cups, soup bowls, plates, trays, and clamshell-style take-out cartons, as well as packing peanuts.

If you’re in the camp that thinks that a Styrofoam ban is nothing more than a tree hugger’s dream come true, think again. For New York City, which generates more than 14 million tons of trash each year with a tab of more than $2.3 billion for trash collection and disposal, the ban is an economic imperative.

It’s not just New York

As of 2019, the Big Apple joins a group of environmentally committed and financially challenged municipalities and counties across the country where Styrofoam already is officially banned—among them, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Miami Beach, Minneapolis, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle. In California, more than eighty cities, towns, and counties are full in on the ban, with more to come. And that’s not all. A host of other major cities, like Chicago, Boston, Honolulu, and Philadelphia, as well as smaller cities and towns in red, blue, and purple states, currently are considering bans.

If you’re thinking this sounds like a movement that’s gathering momentum, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. You’d also be correct to assume that the road to Styrofoam-free zones has generated considerable pushback, particularly in the food industry.  After all, a ban on Styrofoam packaging will dramatically alter how restaurants and street food vendors serve food to the public. In places where the ban is in place, food purveyors will now be required to use biodegradable, environmentally friendly containers. And although biodegradable take-out containers are cheaper than ever, they’re still more costly than containers manufactured from traditional Styrofoam.


How much more costly is the question. Let’s look at the facts. On average, Styrofoam cups cost $25 per 1,000. Biodegradable cups cost approximately $100 for 1,000. For a business that uses 1,000 cups per year, the additional cost is $75 per year. For green take-out containers, the additional cost to businesses is approximately $140 per year on a count of 1,000.

On the other side of the spreadsheet are some troubling facts. First, there’s the issue of disposal.  Styrofoam products, manufactured from non-renewable fossil fuels and toxic chemicals, take a minimum of 500 years to biodegrade. Think about that. Then there’s the fact that 99.8% of Styrofoam products end up either in landfills or in the oceans where they sicken or poison wildlife. And did you know that Styrofoam products now account for an astonishing 30% of all of the waste in U.S. landfills? One estimate captures the scale of the problem on the micro level: One individual purchasing a disposable cup of coffee every day generates approximately 23 pounds of waste per year.

Health issues

Second, there are potentially harmful health issues that have flown under the radar for far too long.  It’s been known for many years that as polystyrene comes into contact with hot, greasy, or acidic foods, the chemicals and toxins used in the plastics’ manufacture can leach into the food we ingest and the hot beverages we drink. Five years ago, in 2014, the National Research Council stepped up and sounded the alarm by signing off on the National Toxicology Program’s conclusion that polystyrene should be listed as a human carcinogen.

Economics, health, and the environment. All will be positively impacted by the commitment of communities—large and small—across the country to ban single-use Styrofoam products. And in case we’ve forgotten, this is what commonsense, fact-based, and responsible governance looks like.

If you’re interested in learning more about the health issues concerning polystyrene, a good place to start is to take a look at the information provided by Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, a coalition representing 450 organizations and businesses and more than eleven million parents and professionals who share the goal of educating the public about health issues related to toxic chemicals.