While it may not be easy being green, New York City will be a much more hospitable place for small gray animals once the Mayor's mandatory food composting plan goes into effect. Rats and mice will be the real winners when every City resident has to leave out their rotting food until composting day. For New Yorkers, the idea stinks.
Yet the composting plan looks almost sensible when compared to another Bloomberg initiative taking shape; a ban on the foam containers and cups we use to keep food warm and coffee from leaking.
Last month, Bloomberg puppet Lewis Fidler (D-Brooklyn) introduced a bill in the City Council that would end the use of expanded polystyrene, more widely knows as styrofoam. Gone would be containers, trays, and other products at restaurants, food trucks, and stores beginning July 1, 2015.
This latest Bloomberg Ban would make our take-out and delivery food a little more expensive and a lot messier. It would also harm the small businesses Bloomberg claims to support, as they'd have to pay nearly double for alternatives. Worse, the ban will do little to protect the environment — especially in light of a more rational approach.
Voicing her support for the bill, City Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn said that "at the end of time, the only things that are going to be left are cockroaches and styrofoam unless we do something about it." While I'd rather get rid of the cockroaches and rodents first, there's no valid reason styrofoam can't be recycled.
City Hall, a usually enthusiastic supporter of recycling, currently blocks recycling of styrofoam. That's right, the Department of Sanitation goes so far as to admonish children not to "place foam lunch trays in your school's recycling bin for DSNY collection." Approximately 830,000 foam lunch trays are used daily in NYC public schools. Those alone could sustain a local recycling facility.
Why won't the City recycle styrofoam? The Department of Sanitation claims it is difficult to recycle foam unless kept clean and separate from other plastics. Further, the City claims few recyclers will take foam — requiring it to be shipped to "distant factories," thus making recycling "expensive, unsustainable and not environmentally friendly." If these reasons are applied across the board, there'd be a lot less recycling overall — the same barriers apply to recycling food-service paper as well. Paper is no panacea.
However, as the American Chemistry Council points out, more than 65 cities across green-friendly California already recycle foam. There's no reason New York City can't do so as well. An efficient and inexpensive insulation in green buildings, you'd think Mayor Bloomberg would love it.
The argument that paper is always better for the environment just doesn't hold water.
Super-light weight foam, which accounts for just half of one percent of the city's solid waste, is often the greenest choice.
Heavy paper containers and cups —which would be necessary for food-services —would not only be more expensive, less convenient, and worse insulators than foam, they are more difficult to keep out of landfills and perhaps more difficult to recycle.
In coffee-loving Seattle, where styrofoam cups are already banned, they've been having a hard time recycling their allegedly green paper cups, according to The Seattle Times.
They've found that mills don't want recycled coffee cups because the process takes longer, making cups more expensive to process than items like recycled cardboard boxes. And facilities that do accept the "mixed paper" that paper coffee cups and other food service items contribute to, only use it in a 1:10 ratio with higher-quality fibers. So there's not much of a market for it, at least in the U.S.
What happens to the rest of the allegedly green alternative to styrofoam? If it doesn't end up in a landfill, it goes on quite a journey. About half of all U.S. recycled paper gets shipped to China, where a higher percentage of "mixed paper" is acceptable. But unlike cardboard, which goes on the ironically environmentally unfriendly recycling trip to China, products touched by food are turned away by Chinese customs officials. Milk and soda bottles, for instance face a stopover in Indonesia for an environmentally costly cleaning, before finally being recycled in China. Foam, on the other hand, is already being recycled in the U.S. and can be done so locally because a market exists for the end product.
Being green doesn't have to mean being anti-business and anti-consumer. The City should explore sensible approaches to protecting the environment without banning a practical and affordable product.
New York City based Jeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and heads its Risk Analysis Division.