The future of plastic-foam food containers in takeout-loving New York City was up for debate Monday, as lawmakers discussed proposals to ban the containers or explore recycling them.
Some other cities already have similar prohibitions. But the idea of nixing plastic foam cups, plates and to-go cartons in the nation's largest city has spawned a muscular debate between supporters — including environmentalists and Mayor Michael Bloomberg — and opponents, among them restaurateurs and other business interests. Both camps held rallies Monday outside City Hall.
"This is actually a rush into the future — for the protection of the Earth, for our environment, for people who work in this industry," sponsor Councilman Lewis Fidler said as the City Council sanitation committee hearing began.
The hearing included several proposals, but the impetus was a Bloomberg-backed measure that would ban foam carryout items, with exceptions for raw meat and prepackaged foodstuffs.
After recent changes, the proposal now calls for first determining whether the containers can be recycled. That's an idea the ban's critics like; its supporters question how economically and environmentally practical it will be to recycle the foam here.
The council itself wasn't set to vote on any measures Monday. But the hearing marked an effort to move the issue forward before the year ends. The environmentally minded mayor proposed banning the containers in his State of the City speech in February.
Street vendors and some eateries prize lightweight, heat-keeping plates and to-go cartons made from expanded polystyrene foam. While people often call it Styrofoam, that brand isn't used in food packaging, manufacturer Dow Chemical Co. says.
But the containers take a long time to break down in landfills, and they also can break up and turn into litter on the way. About 23,000 tons of foam are thrown out per year in New York, where it costs the city an average of $86 per ton to landfill trash.
San Francisco and dozens of other cities in California and elsewhere have already scratched the foam from their menu of carryout options. But the city council in Portland, Maine, expressed concerns in September about a similar plan and put it on hold for revisions.
Many New York restaurateurs already eschew the foam, but others say alternatives are unduly expensive and less effective at insulating food.
While Deputy Mayor Caswell Holloway told lawmakers officials had found the difference would average only 2 cents per item, Councilman Peter Vallone noted that 2 cents could seriously cut into a corner store's profit on a cup of coffee, for instance.
Louis Maldonado, the owner of two restaurants called Tacos Morelos in Queens, spends about $1,600 every two weeks to order about 1,000 foam cups and 1,500 plates with lids. Maldonado said his inquiries found plastic replacements would cost more than twice as much.
"It's going to hurt my business really badly," likely requiring a cutback in hours or even a layoff among his 14 full- and part-time workers, he said.
Bloomberg's 12-year tenure has featured environmental initiatives ranging from planting 1 million trees to promoting composting. On Monday, he announced plans for the city's biggest solar-power project, capable of powering 2,000 homes, at a former landfill on Staten Island.