The mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, has announced plants to ban extruded polystyrene foam – or, as it’s known by its more popular label, Styrofoam. Styrofoam, especially for the restaurant and packaging industries, is a widely used product because of its lightness, its low production costs, and its high heat retention. Despite these clear benefits, progressive environmentalists such as Mayor Bloomberg are opposed to its use because of its unsustainability. Specifically, Mayor Bloomberg points to Styrofoam’s long breakdown time, its high landfill costs, and its potentially harmful effects on human health. If Mayor Bloomberg is successful in banning Styrofoam, it will make New York City the largest city in the United States to ban polystyrene foam. Notably, other major cities in the US, which include Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, have already banned Styrofoam to some extent.
Those who follow New York politics should not be surprised by this new proposal. Mayor Bloomberg, who is celebrating his 12th year as New York City’s mayor, is well known for his progressive focus on public health and environmental sustainability. Over the course of his three terms in office, he has proposed and passed similar bans on a variety of unsafe or unsustainable products. These include a ban on smoking inside bars, a ban on trans fats, and, more recently, a ban on soda cups larger than 16 ounces. The mayor hopes the ban will, eventually, be supported. He compares his ban to the now popularly applauded ban on lead paint in 1960, since it too faced opposition in its time. Perhaps a more appropriate and timely comparison is the recent ban – both nationwide and internationally – on plastic bags. Recall that this useful shopping material faced similar opposition due to its unsustainability.
Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban will likely face opposition from small business owners. Styrofoam, after all, is an effective and cheap material for take-out and shipping containers. Other, more environmentally sustainable alternatives cost between two to five times as much as Styrofoam; being forced to use these alternatives could mean high long-term costs, especially for owners in the restaurant business. Steven Russel, vice president of the American Chemistry Council, shares the concern of these small business owners. He urges Mayor Bloomberg to consider alternatives that, while expensive for the city, will be both sustainable to the environment and also cheap for these same small business owners. Specifically, Russel suggests investing in a recycling plan that will better enable the city to recycle the 20,000 tonnes of Styrofoam it generates yearly.
Many of Mayor Bloomberg’s bans, while initially controversial, have become greatly accepted over time. An example of this is his progressive ban on smoking inside bars; many major cities worldwide followed Mayor Bloomberg’s example, leading to an overall push against smoking. I hope this is the case with this ban. Others need to realize the importance of curbing our unsustainable consumption. Mayor Bloomberg’s leadership may very well lead the way to this realization.