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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
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.

McDonald's
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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RE: I agree
By Just Tom on 12/2/2013 2:03:24 PM , Rating: 2
The differences between lead in gas and styrofoam are legion but I'll stick with two 1) other people breathed in the lead emitted from my tailpipe, other people are not exposed to any harmful effects from the sytrofoam container my food was served in; and 2) there was robust science linking lead levels then present in the environment due to its use as a fuel additive to a whole host of health problems, no such comparable research is exists for styrofoam.

I will be all in favor of a styrofoam ban when there is research that it is detrimental to health at levels currently present in the environment. Until then let the market decide.


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