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Harlem Restaurants Speak Out Against Proposed Styrofoam Container Ban

By Jeff Mays | August 8, 2013 8:26am
 Some Harlem restaurant owners railed against Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed plan to ban the use of polystyrene foam containers, commonly referred to as Styrofoam, unveiled in the mayor's final State of the City Address in February.
Styrofoam Ban Walking Tour in Harlem
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HARLEM — During a busy month at Mofongo Del Valle Restaurant in West Harlem, owner Felix Jimenez dishes out heaping servings of sweet plantains, rice, beans and rotisserie chicken to customers using more than 2,000 Styrofoam cups and containers he says are more durable and cheaper than aluminum or paper products.

Five hundred aluminum tins cost $44, for example, while 500 Styrofoam containers sell for just $18, he said. A stack of 500 paper cups cost $37 while the same number of their foam counterparts sells for just $20.

That's why Jimenez says he's against Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to ban the use of polystyrene foam containers, commonly referred to as Styrofoam, which he proposed in his final State of the City Address in February.

"I might have to let people go because of the cost of other products is too much," Jimenez said through a translator during a visit by City Councilman Robert Jackson.

The visit was organized by Restaurant Alliance Action NYC, which is fighting the ban along with the American Chemistry Council.

The ban, which could affect some 1,800 restaurants in the city, according to the groups, was introduced in the City Council in June.

But Bloomberg said the costs and benefits of continuing to use Styrofoam products just don't add up.

"Styrofoam increases the cost of recycling by as much as $20 per ton, because it has to be removed," the mayor said in February. "Something that we know is environmentally destructive, that is costing taxpayers money, and that is easily replaceable, is something we can do without."

Other cities such as Seattle already have Styrofoam bans in place.

Still, Jackson says that recycling the Styrofoam is an alternative to banning the product. Los Angeles recycles Styrofoam.

By recycling Styrofoam, the city could save $95 per ton on the cost of garbage and also get $160 per ton for recycling the product, he said. The recycled product is used to produce picture frames, plastic rulers and wall moldings.

The city produces approximately 18,000 tons of Styrofoam waste per year.

"I believe there are good intentions behind the ban but that does not equal a good reality for the city's small businesses," Jackson said while visiting four restaurants on Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue around West 135th Street.

"We always say small business is the backbone of our city. If that's the case let's not break the backbone of small businesses," Jackson told Jimenez.

At Best Angel's Coffee Shop near West 135th Street and Broadway, owner Carlos Barojas said he was just hearing about the ban from organizers gearing up to fight the plan. Juggling inventory and income to afford more expensive packaging would put the store, which sells tamales, burritos and smoothies, at risk.

"We make just enough to get by," Barojas said of his family-owned business that has been open for about 18 months. "I don't even look at the cost of aluminum containers because I know they cost more."

Proponents of Bloomberg's plan, which may be voted on in the City Council next month, say Styrofoam is too harmful to the environment and too difficult to recycle.

"Polystyrene foam never biodegrades, is extremely difficult to recycle, and because it is brittle and breaks into tiny pieces once it is thrown out, is a major contributor to litter on city streets, parks and beaches," wrote Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council on the group's blog.

Many restaurants have also already "substituted other more recyclable or compostable food containers for polystyrene products," Goldstein said.

During his tenure as mayor, Bloomberg has already put in place a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, among other health initiatives. A ruling that overturned the policy limiting the size of sugary drinks sold in restaurants and movie theaters was upheld by the appellate division of the state Supreme Court Tuesday.

"I don't want anyone telling me what I can buy and what I can't buy," said Jackson in comparing the sugary drink ban to the Styrofoam ban.

Jackson said he plans to introduce legislation next month that calls for the city to recycle — not ban — Styrofoam.

"This would cost millions of dollars more for small businesses that are struggling to survive," Jackson said.