In his final State of the City address, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg put forth a proposal to ban polystyrene foam packaging. Bloomberg addressed the motivations for the ban as partly economic and partly environmental, saying that because polystyrene is not biodegradable, it costs the taxpayers extra money to remove it out of the waste.
But would a ban on the popular packaging material actually save money and create a more sustainable culture? That’s the question the American Chemistry Council set out to answer with a recent study conducted by MB Public Affairs.
The study concluded that “such a ban could nearly double food service packaging costs — while doing little to actually reduce waste”. The cost for New York City retailers to replace polystyrene food and drink containers with the next cheapest alternative would average about $91.3 million per year. Or as the report puts it:
“In other words, for every $1.00 now spent on plastic foam foodservice and drink containers, NYC consumers and businesses will have to spend at least $1.94 on the alternative replacements, effectively doubling the cost to businesses.”
We have seen attempts to ban types of plastic packaging in the past, with proponents of such measures citing the environmental benefits. But the myth that banning such substances would cure society of its sustainability problems is often misguided. The key to creating true sustainability change in society is demonstrating that it is affordable as well.
While Mayor Bloomberg may have the best intentions with this bill, it seems to ignore the bigger picture. Businesses will have to raise prices to adjust for the rise in price of buying a new material to replace pyrostyrene. Ultimately, this cost will be transferred to the customer. While the ban may relieve some of the costs associated with cleaning up pyrostyrene, it will have unintended consequences on food prices.
A better solution relies not in banning pyrostyrene or other petrochemicals, but in recycling them for reuse. Recycled material solves the landfill problem and the price problem. It is proven that recycled materials use less energy to produce than virgin material, and create a sustainable life-cycle.
Perhaps Mayor Bloomberg and other politicians should consider programs that enhance plastics recycling while also encouraging the use of recycled material in products.