Styrofoam Food Containers to Be Banned in New York City

Halal food styrofoam
Containers like this will be banned in New York City beginning this summer. gazeronly/Flickr

Single-use Styrofoam cups and food containers, the kind that are ubiquitous at food carts and takeout restaurants all over New York, will be banned in the city beginning July 1 of this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration announced Thursday.

Expanded polystyrene foam, or Styrofoam, is not biodegradable and cannot be recycled by the city, so the containers pile up in landfills. The city estimates that the ban will prevent 30,000 tons of landfilled waste annually.

"These products cause real environmental harm and have no place in New York City. We have better options, better alternatives, and if more cities across the country follow our lead and institute similar bans, those alternatives will soon become more plentiful and will cost less," de Blasio said in a statement.

In addition to its waste challenges, Styrofoam may be bad for human health. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services added styrene, a synthetic compound in Styrofoam, to its list of known or possible carcinogens.

Hot foods, oily foods, acids and alcohol cause Styrofoam food containers to partially break down, leaching styrene into whatever food the container is holding, according to a fact sheet on Styrofoam compiled by Northern Illinois University.

"Avoid drinking tea with lemon, coffee with dairy cream, fruit juices, alcoholic beverages and wine from Styrofoam cups. Red wine will instantly dissolve the styrene monomer. Do not eat oily foods from Styrofoam containers," the university says. It also advises against microwaving the containers.

A 2007 study published in the Journal of Environmental Sciences came to a similar conclusion: that Styrofoam cups leached styrene when in contact with warm liquid.

The Guardian recently looked at the impact the ban will have on food vendors in New York, who rely on the cheap takeout material. A halal cart owner named Shamim told The Guardian that packs of 100 Styrofoam containers sell for just $12, and that he uses between 120 and 150 containers every day. He is open to the ban as a means to make the city more environmentally sound, but he told the paper that he would have to raise the prices on his menu if he is forced to use more expensive packaging.

"I will agree with them, but they have to give us the alternative," he said.