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  (Source: KQED)
Ban could affect a variety of businesses ranging from homeless shelters to fast food joints

Billionaire media mogul and New York City Mayor Michael Rubens Bloomberg wants to give New Yorkers a little something to remember him by when he leaves office in a month after serving three consecutive terms.
I. A Going Away Gift -- For Your Health
Mr. Bloomberg, who did not pursue reelection this year, has been known for his controversial policies, including his ban on jumbo-sized sodas.  And his parting shot is no exception.  He wants a citywide ban on polystyrene cups and plates.
Although Bloomberg declared an all out assault on Styrofoam, the colloquial term for polystyrene foam, the brand is not actually used for food product containers. Styrofoam is a trademarked name for lightweight expanded polystyrene (EPS), a benzene-rich carbon polymer.  Styrofoam is among the lightest commercial polymers, due to it being 98 percent air by volume -- a trait that makes it a great insulator as well.  The Dow Chemical Comp. (DOW) produces more than 14 million tons of the polymer per year largely for the shipping and building industries who covet its light weight, its ability to insulate, and its strength. 

Mayor Bloomberg
Mayor Bloomberg hasn't been shy about micromanaging New Yorkers' buying decisions.
[Image Source: Getty Images]

Polystyrene foam accounts for "only" 23,000 tons of the city's 3 million tons of waste, it does represent a significant portion of NYC's trash stream by volume.
Polystyrene products are readily recyclable, but doing so profitably requires a large plant capable of washing, grinding, and melting down waste EPS.  And many don't have access to recycling or choose not to participate.  As a result only about 12 percent of polystyrene is recycled yearly. 
Polystyrene, aka "Styrofoam" (in expanded form) [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Aside from waste, there's also a debate regarding the health effects of eating food off of and drinking from styrofoam containers.  Styrene can erode in minute quantities into food and drink.  Studies on lab rats have shown that inhaled polystyrene can cause leukemia and lymphoma, as well as other non-cancer issues including fatigue, depression, and headaches.

Styrofoam containers
Styrofoam containers are cheap and feature great material performance, but may slightly increase some health risks and hog landfill space. [Image Source: Reuters]

To be fair, the studies cited on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) website are primarily on lab rats inhaling a massive amount of vaporized (burned) polystyrene foam.  The human nose smells a distinctive odor for polystyrene foam at 0.32 parts per million.  While you can often "smell" the styrofoam in food containers, the incredibly high level of styrene -- 24,000 ppm -- that lab mice were exposed to would likely produce a far more acrid smell.
Studies indicate the average person living in urban areas receives around 0.4-0.6 ppm per day.  That paper said the risk to drinking water due to styrene seeping into the water supply was much lower (maybe 0.002 ppm per day for a "polluted" supply.  Cigarette smoke also contains significant amounts of styrene, perhaps doubling the smoker's daily exposure.  Styrene's neurological effects may explain part of the cause of neurological changes in heavy teenage and adult smokers.
Given the human body's robust systems for repairing DNA and eliminating toxins, polystyrene foam and other EPS brands probably only represent a small increase in the risk of certain kinds of cancer, when used heavily over an average lifespan.
II. For the Greater Good?
Jake Goldman, a spokesperson for Mayor Bloomberg, comments, "When polystyrene foam is used for food service it becomes a devastating pollutant that infects our parks and waterways while never biodegrading and has been classified a carcinogenic health hazard by the National Institute of Health."
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio appears to also support the policy -- he proposed a similar ban while serving as a public advocate in 2010.  Various cities in California and other parts of the west coast have also banned polystyrene foam.  And in NYC and other regions, some chains like McDonald's Corp. (MCD), Dunkin Donuts (Dunkin Brands Group Inc. (DNKN), and The Wendy's Comp. (WEN) have already eliminated polystyrene foam, replacing it with biodegradable alternatives.

Big chains like McDonald's have largely already absorbed the modest cost of moving away from polystyrene in health concious regions like NYC. [Image Source: Behance]

And therein lies the rub.  For big chains, the switch doesn't appear to be a big deal.  But with The American Chemistry Council estimating the cost of switching to the cheapest alternatives will be about $91.3M USD, that's a much bigger financial blow to small businesses and nonprofits like schools, synagogues, churches, and homeless shelters.
Rosemary Nunez, owner of La Nueva Estrella El Castillo restaurant in Brooklyn, comments to The New York Post, "I use foam containers because they’re great at keeping food fresh and because they’re economical.  This is just another example of the administration trampling on the interests of the people who create jobs in this city."
The move could also cost as many as 1,215 New Yorkers' jobs in the plastic industry that supply the popular polymer.
For those reasons some believe that Mayor Bloomberg's administration is failing to see the big picture, even if its latest mandate does have some scientific backing.

Sources: The New York Post, World Health Organization [PDF], EPA

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Ask a plastic expert before making decisions
By chrisld on 11/25/2013 3:29:52 PM , Rating: 2
Might be wise to ask a plastic expert before making decisions of such magnitude. I am one (see Phantom Plastics website for proof) and would be happy to give meaningful input based on facts rather than feelings.

They burned polystyrene and determined that the gas was toxic. That's no surprise but unrealistic. The most toxic polymer when burnt is wool. Will be be outlawing sheep next month?

Plastic foam saves a giant amount of oil and energy by insulating our homes for example. It turns out to be a very green solution (backed up by facts).

RE: Ask a plastic expert before making decisions
By FaaR on 11/25/13, Rating: -1
RE: Ask a plastic expert before making decisions
By Reclaimer77 on 11/25/2013 4:38:34 PM , Rating: 3
The FDA says it doesn't. Hundreds of independent studies say there is NO health risk to humans.

The Mayor of New York and Dailytech say different.

Hmmm, who do I go with here? Tough choice!

By Dorkyman on 11/25/2013 8:40:04 PM , Rating: 2
Ah, but you forgot that the FDA is part of the Giant Chemical Companies Poisoning Our Children (GCCPOC for short) cartel. No one is safe. We are all doomed. Doomed, I say!

Look, there's really no way to discuss this with the GCCPOC believers. It's a religion to them, and as such there are basic tenets taken on faith and thus not subject to question.

By JediJeb on 11/27/2013 5:17:58 PM , Rating: 1
Studies indicate the average person living in urban areas receives around 0.4-0.6 ppm per day. That paper said the risk to drinking water due to styrene seeping into the water supply was much lower (maybe 0.002 ppm per day for a "polluted" supply.

This quote right here is wrong on so many levels scientifically.

First off you don't get a dose of 0.4-0.6ppm per day unless you explain what the units represent. If you consume 1g of something that is contaminated with 0.4ppm they you receive a total of 0.0000004g of that contaminate. If you consume one Kg of the same material then you receive 0.0004g of that contaminate. So are people receiving 0.0000004-0.0000006g of styrene per day or are they receiving 0.0004-0.0006g per day or some other amount. A value of 0.4ppm is worthless without the background information needed to understand what it means.

The other is about a polluted water supply with 0.002ppm styrene in it since the Federal limit allow in a drinking water supply is 0.0005ppm or 0.5 micrograms per liter. Anything above that and the water system has to send out a letter to every customer telling them of the problem. And even if your water supply is contaminated at 0.002ppm then you would only receive 2 micrograms of styrene for every liter of water you drink from that supply. Not to mention this minute amount could easily be removed with the filter in a Britta water pitcher.

The only ones spreading FUD around here are the ones like Mayor Bloomberg who are acting like the world is ending due to someone eating from a Styrofoam plate. I guarantee you that this year more people will die in New York City from sexually transmitted diseases than will die from styrene ingestion from these cups and plates yet I don't hear the mayor trying to ban sex. Alcohol consumption will also cause more damage to New Yorkers this year than styrene will and you won't see them banning alcohol at Time's Square this New Years Eve. I bet if you convert the dosage of Styrofoam soot those rats received to the equivalent dosage of alcohol they would have died even quicker.

I am just amazed how these days legitimate science is thrown out the window or ignored while some half baked experiment that produces some frightening result that may or may not be valid gets a sensational headline. No wonder so many people without a science background go around frightened to death of the big bad chemistry.

"It seems as though my state-funded math degree has failed me. Let the lashings commence." -- DailyTech Editor-in-Chief Kristopher Kubicki

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