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School Lunchroom Movement Wins NY Styrene Fight

A national movement against plastic foam food containers got a boost of momentum as New York moves closer to a citywide ban.

A child works a giant puppet made of styrene foam trays

Photo: Courtesy of Cafeteria Culture

A child works the arms of a giant puppet made of styrene foam trays during a demonstration calling for a citywide ban in New York City.

Fomenting Rebellion

New York is the latest and largest U.S. city to pass a ban on single-use polystyrene foam containers for food and drinks. In a unanimous decision, the City Council voted at the end of December to prohibit restaurants, food carts and stores from using styrene cups, clamshell takeout boxes, school lunch trays — and even those ubiquitous packing peanuts.

The decision marks the culmination of a six-year fight that started over styrene use in the city’s public school lunchrooms.

Debby Lee Cohen, a public school mom and the director and co-founder of Cafeteria Culture, mustered for action with other environmentally-minded moms and teachers in the spring of 2009 to stop the waste of millions of polystyrene trays per day. Soon after, they launched a kid-driven pilot project to sort waste in lunchrooms, and 15 other groups in the city took up the cause.

“This landmark decision puts another nail in the coffin of toxic styrenes. It’s a victory for our health and our future!” Lee Cohen said in a release. “Our children’s children’s children will be thankful!”

Cafeteria Culture has pushed for compostable trays to replace polystyrene ones, and spurred collective purchasing to keep costs down.

This landmark decision puts another nail in the coffin of toxic styrenes. It’s a victory for our health and our future! Our children’s children’s children will be thankful!

Approval of the ban comes just days before the end of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 12-year reign. Activists say his successor, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, has supported past efforts to curb waste. The mayor’s office says polystyrene foam can’t be recycled, and currently an estimated 20,000 tons of the stuff contaminates the pool of recyclable materials like glass and plastics.

Work Ahead

There are caveats. The ban won’t go into effect until July 2015, giving the industry one more chance to prove that food-smeared foam can feasibly be recycled. Small businesses can also apply for a waiver after the rule goes into effect.

Dart Container and the Restaurant Action Alliance have fought fiercely against the ban, saying that polystyrene foam is recyclable and pricier alternatives would put an unfair burden on school districts in poor neighborhoods.

Lee Cohen countered that argument by pointing out the health risks posed by food eaten from polystyrene affects poor neighborhoods disproportionately. The National Toxicology Program found in its 12th edition of the Report on Carcinogens that styrene is “reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen.”

“In middle and high income neighborhoods, you don’t even see that much polystyrene anymore. It’s become a real issue of disparity,” she said.

Industry groups have yet to demonstrate a way to reuse containers contaminated with food waste, and a 100-school project in 2008 failed to help their case.

What’s In A Name

If you’re wondering why no one seems to be calling the stuff styrofoam anymore, that’s because technically, it never really was. Dow Chemical, who owns the trademark, is pretty serious about getting people to stop using the “s” word.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the ban would bring New York into the ranks of nearly 100 cities and towns across the country that have cracked down on polystyrene food and beverage containers. New York is part of a group with five other cities known as the Urban School Food Alliance, including Miami, Orlando, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas, that is pushing for more sustainable school lunches.

Read More:

  • Plastic-Foam Container Ban Approved by New York City Council (Bloomberg)
  • Win! New York City bans Styrofoam (Treehugger)
  • Six Public School Systems Are Trying to Replace Foam Lunch Trays With Compostable Ones (Smithsonian)
Chad Bouchard

Chad Bouchard is a veteran reporter and WFIU alum who has covered wild and wooly beats from Indonesia to Capitol Hill. His radio work has aired on NPR, PRI and Voice of America, and his writing has appeared in The Sunday Telegraph and Scientific American’s health magazine, Lives. He has also spent a lifetime gardening, foraging and eating weird stuff.

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