ITHACA, N.Y. — With the new year will come a sweeping ban on foamed polystyrene products, commonly referred to as styrofoam. Packing-peanuts, takeout containers, coffee cups, and the sale of all products using foamed polystyrene will be ceased in the Empire state, as will polystyrene manufacturing.
The ban will not pertain to foamed polystyrene that’s used for raw meat or fish, or regular polystyrene which is a material that CD and DVD cases are made commonly made from.
Foamed polystyrene products come at a low upfront cost to consumers and retailers, but a high cost to the environment. It’s a plastic, meaning the key ingredient to make it is petroleum. Polystyrene products break down so slowly that it can’t be considered biodegradable, and it’s a challenging material to recycle. Estimates for how long it takes for polystyrene to break down vary widely, from 500 to 1 million years, even across studies considering similar conditions, like in open water or landfills. Foamed polystyrene products have been estimated to take up about 30 percent of U.S. landfill space.
While it doesn’t biodegrade, polystyrene does rapidly disintegrate and spread, and its ubiquity — along with other plastic wastes — has spurred researchers to try and understand its impacts on the environment and individual health. Some studies have demonstrated that toxic substances leach from polystyrene containers into the food and liquids they contain, particularly hot ones.
New York’s ban on polystyrene meets a long-mounting public concern around the material, which seems to be particularly acute in the Ithaca area. Though there are many businesses that rely on the cheap material and will soon need to find an alternative, there are others that have jumped ahead of the curve.
“I can see where people can expect food prices on takeout to rise, because styrofoam is so unbelievably cheap compared to the rest of takeout containers,” said Josh Eckenrode, the owner of Café Dewitt, but he added that he would rather “eat the cost than support the use of an unconscionable material.”
In addition to the environmental impacts, Eckenroad said that he dislikes styrofoam for the negative effects that it has on some foods.
“[Styrofoam] doesn’t breathe,” said Eckenrode. “So you put some french fries in a styrofoam container, and by the time you get them home they’re mush.”
Eckenrode said that he’s found takeout containers made of sugarcane by-products that are better for the food his café serves, and are compostable under the right conditions.
Styrofoam has long been used as a cheap way to protect fragile goods in the form of packing-peanuts and molds, but to some they are a nuisance.
“I hate those things,” said Jack Powers, owner of Happy Jack’s Maple Syrup, located in Locke, NY. “They’re just such a mess. I’m not upset about the ban at all. I think it’s probably long overdue.”
Besides being pesky, Powers said that the environmental impacts of foamed polystyrene are the big reason why he doesn’t use the material. He said he’s found plenty of alternatives that work to protect the glass containers he fills with maple syrup, like packaging papers and shredded up cardboard filler packaging material.
Happy Jack’s Maple Syrup is one of the larger maple syrup producers in the area, operating over 15,000 tapped trees. When Powers has a larger order and needs a packing material that works like packing-peanuts, he said he uses sugar-based packing-peanut alternatives, which are able to naturally degrade under the right conditions.
Tompkins County Recycling and Materials Management (TCRMM) has organized programs to promote alternatives to polystyrene, like ReBusiness Partners.
With the polystyrene ban soon approaching, Nancy Webster, TCRMM’s Waste Reduction and Recycling specialist, said, “Our department is happy to assist businesses in finding alternatives and in reducing waste throughout their operations, as we have since 2008.”