Risk Experts to New York City: Styrofoam Ban Would Be a Mistake

New York, NY – In a letter sent this morning to members of the New York City Council, a coalition of policy organizations is cautioning legislators against supporting Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to ban Styrofoam in New York City.

The Mayor announced his intention in the State of the City address last month.

Policy experts, including New York City resident Jeff Stier, director of the Risk Analysis Division at the National Center for Public Policy Research; Julie Gunlock, director of Women for Food Freedom of the Independent Women’s Forum; and Angela Logomasini, Senior Fellow of the Center for Energy and Environment of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, wrote:

We are writing to share our concerns about the proposed ban on Styrofoam. The justifications cited by ban advocates are either the result of an incomplete real-world analysis or are simply based on incorrect information.

Styrofoam might not always be the right choice for all food-service items, but every product carries trade-offs. Just try carrying hot soup in a paper cup. You’ll need multiple cups.

Those multiple paper cup alternatives, like everything else, come with environmental costs. In fact, Styrofoam is highly energy efficient, and life – cycle studies have shown that it actually requires a whole lot less energy than paper cups. And both products either end up in the landfill or are recycled.

One study finds that replacing one foam cup with three paper cups could require 36 times more water for production, and the dirty paper cups are unlikely to even be recycled. In fact, plastic products cost less because they are very energy efficient, which is one reason businesses use them.

One thing that is frequently recycled is the myth that Styrofoam is not recyclable.

Cities across the country have been doing it, and New York City can learn from their experiences. The product must be cleaned, ground up, heated, and turned into pellets that can be used in a variety of applications.

A related myth is that there is no market for the recycled matter. But there is already demand for the product for construction materials, including “green buildings” and for re-usable packaging of consumer goods.

We recognize that the City is required to meet increasingly ambitious recycling goals. But a ban on recyclable Styrofoam will not contribute towards achieving those goals.

An outright ban on Styrofoam in food-service settings is an unwise approach. While it won’t protect the environment or help the City meet recycling goals, it will unnecessarily increase costs for restaurants, facilities, and consumers. Unfortunately, these costs will be especially burdensome to small businesses, which are important employers in your district, as well as your constituents who are already struggling with the high cost of living in the City. Hardworking, time-pressed New Yorkers rely on the convenience of having a choice of affordable food packaging options.

Inflexible proposals like this one always have unintended consequences that are rarely given due consideration during the policy-making process. In this case, the downsides of a ban include:

  • Increased costs to small businesses
  • Higher food costs passed along by restaurants
  • Increased expenses for social service charities that feed people
  • Higher costs to City agencies that serve food
  • Environmental costs from alternatives to Styrofoam
  • Wasted food

Ultimately, consumers and businesses should be free to decide what type of packing meets their needs.

A PDF of the actual letter sent to the City Council can be found here.

Stier, Gunlock and Logomasini also will critique so-called “nanny state” initiatives on a panel at the national conservative CPAC conference in Maryland on Friday, March 15 sponsored by the Independent Women’s Forum. The panel, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love Plastic Water Bottles, Fracking, Genetically Modified Food and Big Gulps,” will also feature Jillian Kay Melchior of the Franklin Center and be moderated by Sabrina Schaeffer of the Independent Women’s Forum.

The proposed Styrofoam ban is one of a series of initiatives by Bloomberg to restrict choice. The Mayor’s ban on the sale of soda in cups larger than 16 ounces goes into effect Tuesday. The Mayor also has donated $50 million to political efforts to restrict the use of coal for electricity generation nationally, and the city’s sanitation department is considering an outright ban on plastic grocery bags following the city council’s rejection in 2008 of a proposal by Mayor Bloomberg to place a 5-cent tax on their use.

The mayor also has decreed that new mothers in New York hospitals must breastfeed unless there is a medical reason for them not to do so.

Mayor Bloomberg also has banned smoking and trans fats from New York bars and restaurants, required calorie counts on restaurant menus, banned smoking in city plazas, parks and beaches, and banned private food donations to city homeless shelters in an effort to monitor the fat, salt and fiber content of foods eaten by the homeless. He also has used to power of his office to pressure food manufacturers to reduce the salt in their products and is using New York tax funds to urge city residents not to play their earbuds on high settings, among other initiatives.

The National Center for Public Policy Research, founded in 1982, is a non-partisan, free-market, independent conservative think-tank. Ninety-four percent of its support comes from individuals, less than four percent from foundations, and less than two percent from corporations. It receives over 350,000 individual contributions a year from over 96,000 active recent contributors.

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The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.