NYC foam food container ban plan to get hearing

The future of plastic-foam food containers in takeout-loving New York City is being debated at a hearing Monday on 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 had scheduled rallies outside City Hall before the City Council sanitation committee's Monday afternoon meeting.

The hearing includes 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 determining first 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 isn't set to vote on any measures Monday. But the hearing marks an effort to move the issue forward before the year ends - and so do the terms of some of its council champions and Bloomberg. The environmentally minded mayor proposed banning the containers in his State of the City speech in February.

"Something we know is environmentally destructive, that is costing taxpayers money, and that is easily replaceable is, I think, something we can do without," Bloomberg said in his State of the City speech.

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.

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.

While some restaurateurs have shifted away from the foam over the years, others say alternatives are more expensive and less effective at insulating food.

"This will obligate us to raise prices," Jonny Falcones, the owner of La Nueva Estrella el Castillo in Brooklyn, said at a rally before the ban plan was introduced in the City Council in June.

Bloomberg's 12-year tenure has featured environmental initiatives ranging from planting 1 million trees to promoting composting. He has set a goal of doubling the city's residential recycling rate to 30 percent of all household trash by 2017.