Picking up where his ban-happy predecessor left off, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s outlawing of expanded polystyrene foam products has been heralded as his administration’s first big environmental victory — a crucial step in an ambitious goal to trim the notoriously garbage-challenged Big Apple’s sizable “waste" line by 90 percent over the next 15 years.

However, this victory, which finally saw New York join dozens of other major cities across the country — the nation’s capital, pretty much all of California and the usual suspects like Seattle and Portland — in plastic foam ban-dom might ultimately be a short-lived one.

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City Hall, however, vows to rally against a ruling made earlier this week by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chan that overturns the ban on (briefly) forbidden foam.

“We disagree with the ruling,” a de Blasio spokeswoman explained in a statement. “These products cause real environmental harm, and we need to be able to prevent nearly 30,000 tons of expanded polystyrene waste from entering our landfills, streets and waterways. We are reviewing our options to keep the ban in effect.”

The kibosh on polystyrene foam (Styrofoam is a trademarked polystyrene insulation and craft material manufactured by the Dow Corporation that’s also widely used, in a generic sense, to refer to all polystyrene products) coffee cups, egg cartons, takeout containers and the like was made law in January of this year and went into effect on July 1. Businesses, including delis, bodegas and the thousands of curbside food carts that line New York's streets, have until Jan. 1, 2016 to phase out plastic foam before penalties for noncompliance start to kick in.

So really, the landmark ban, which saw New York replace Los Angeles as the largest American city to institute such a law, was never even given the chance to fully take effect. Officials estimate that 28,500 million tons of soiled Styrofoam containers are chucked by New Yorkers and carted off to landfills each year. Once in landfills, it takes about a million years, give or take, for our foam leftovers to biodegrade.

Simply put, the stuff is a scourge on the planet.

The business side of the story

And while many businesses bewailed the ban, others embraced it and proactively swapped out Styrofoam with recyclable and compostable paper alternatives. It was, after all, the right thing to do. Even McDonald’s, purveyor of everlasting foodstuffs, went polystyrene-free over two decades ago (with the exception of coffee cups,which were phased out two years ago).

And many businesses, even though they might now have the legal option to revert back to plastic foam containers, have indicated that they're going to stick it out with paper. “Styrofoam cups are cheaper and they also keep the coffee warmer,” Alex Hwang, a manager at a Midtown deli, tells the New York Daily News. “But they are bad for the landfills. People have gotten used to paper cups.”

Clearly influenced by evidence supplied by the Restaurant Action Alliance, which, along with a group of manufacturers, sued the city in April to halt the ban, Judge Chan’s decision was borne from an egregious he said/she said debate over the recyclability of expanded foam products that has plagued the city for some time now.

Noting that “it has not been proven that recycling dirty foam can be done on a large scale, and there is no demonstrated market for this material,” Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia argued earlier this year that plastic foam packaging that’s been soiled with food cannot be effectively recycled in New York City.

Chan, however, ultimately sided with plastic foam manufacturers, calling the ban both “arbitrary” and “capricious.”

I’d go as far to call the ban “a fantastic, long overdue idea” but I’m not the one sitting on the bench.

“The commissioner’s concern is not justified given abundant evidence showing a viable and growing market for not just clean EPS (expanded polystyrene foam) but post consumer EPS material,” said Chan.

In addition to convincing Chan that expanded polystyrene foam products can indeed be easily recycled, the groups suing the city, lead by Michigan-based Dart Container Corporation, also argued that recycling the petrochemical-based material isn’t just feasible but also lucrative, saving the city upwards of $400,000 per year.

Along with City Hall and foam-fighting vets of the Bloomberg administration, city environmentalists are dismayed by the ruling. The Natural Resource Defense Council’s Eric Goldstein tells the New York Times: “There’s not a single major city in the nation that has successfully implemented a recycling program for used polystyrene food containers, and the reason is simple: It doesn’t make economic sense.”

Famous consumer of NYC take-out, #PizzaRat, declined to comment.

Via [NYT], [Daily News] [CBS]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Styrofoam containers squeak back into NYC's waste stream
A fleeting ban on the ubiquitous landfill-clogger is overturned by a Manhattan judge.