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NYC to halt use of polystyrene food containers

After a six-month grace period, the familiar foam packaging will be banned.

New York City will immediately start phasing out restaurants’ use of polystyrene food containers after a judge ruled Friday against an operator coalition that had sued to overturn the regulation, Mayor Bill de Blasio said over the weekend.

Unless the measure is blocked again on appeal, the city will commence a public education campaign to smooth the way for the change to other sorts of containers. Restaurateurs will be given a six-month grace period to find alternatives before they’ll be subject to sanctions.

The measure was scheduled to take effect last November, after a five-year struggle to ban the containers. Weeks before the start date, a group called the Restaurant Action Alliance (RAA) filed a lawsuit challenging the rule change, arguing it was erroneously based on assertions that polystyrene could not feasibly be recycled.  The action said the New York State Supreme Court had already ruled that the familiar foam-type containers could be reclaimed and repurposed.

RAA members estimated that 40% to 60% of their sales come from food served in polystyrene containers.

Forcing restaurateurs and retailers to adopt non-foam-type containers would raise costs by about $11.2 million annually, according to the RAA.

It also argued in its Supreme Court action that polystyrene takeout containers account for just 20% of all the foam that flows into landfills. A ban would not resolve the problem, RAA contended.

Supreme Court Judge Margaret Chan ruled against the RAA on Friday, rebuffing the argument that recycling would be a feasible way to deflect polystyrene containers from landfills. She cited the contentions of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia that recycling would not work for a city like New York, and noted that the official had exhaustively explored the possibility.

City Hall has been trying since 2013 to ban polystyrene takeout containers. A bill was passed by the City Council in December of that year and signed into law by de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, in the last days of his administration, with a ban set to take effect in 2016.

Restaurants, retailers and plastics manufacturers banded together to thwart the measure. They set up a pilot program to prove polystyrene could be recycled, and presented the evidence to the Supreme Court in Manhattan, which halted enactment of the law in September 2015.

The city conducted its own research, releasing a report in May 2017 that convinced a judge to lift the stay on the 2013 law.

The RAA’s action derailed the measure in September.

The group’s lawyer, former Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro, told local media that the coalition is studying its legal options in the wake of Friday’s decision. 

New York City, which is currently considering a measure to prohibit restaurants from providing customers with plastic drinking straws, has long been the point of origin for restaurant-related measures that eventually become nationwide regulations. It was the first metropolitan area, for instance, to ban smoking and trans fats, and was the first to mandate the disclosure of nutritional information by chain restaurants.

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