Ban This City


By Tanya Silverman

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“We’re going to become ‘Ban Jose’ instead of San Jose,” the California city council member, Johnny Khammis announced this summer to justify his opposition to banning Styrofoam food containers.

“I’m not a big ban-everything kind of person,” he added.

No matter the strength or wit of Johnny Khammis’ words, San Jose still passed the ban on Styrofoam food containers. Properly known as polystyrene, Styrofoam is both inexpensive and efficient at insulating food products. However, because the material takes a long time to degrade, it is notorious for saturating landfills and polluting water.

Styrofoam can take up to hundreds of years to decompose, and while technology exists to recycle the material, it has not been thoroughly developed or consolidated. Alternative food-container materials include corn plastics, bamboo, and recycled paper, all of which are biodegradable when composted.

Over in New York City, Michael Bloomberg, who is in the final stretches of his mayoral career, has been pushing a bill to ban Styrofoam. In late November, the City Council voted to delay the ban by a year, allowing Styrofoam-manufacturing companies the twelve-month time frame to prove that the material can be effectively recycled. Local news sources write allegations of Dart Container Corporation, a Styrofoam manufacturer, paying thousands to lobby against the ban and, in effect, influence City Council’s decision to postpone the ban (which Dart denies).

Beyond big Styrofoam manufacturers like Dart, small food-service businesses would be most affected by the ban, and oftentimes, local restaurant and cafe owners speak up against the high cost of replacements. The Restaurant Alliance NYC launched a campaign, Put a Lid on It NYC, pushing for efforts to recycle Styrofoam rather than forbid it.

While there is no widespread “Ban Jose” equivalent that’s been adapted to New York City’s name as a place, in terms of its politics many have taken to calling the mayor “Nanny Bloomberg” and to his mayoral term as the “Nanny State”. Bloomberg’s rule has included enforcing mandatory calorie counts on chain restaurants; banning trans fats in restaurants; forbidding smoking in public places; cutbacks on salt products; and, of course, his (in)famous battle against large portions of soda.

Given his record, it seems like the “’ban-everything” stigma would not be much of an issue for Bloomberg – yet, when confronted by a Staten Island resident about his regulations, the mayor responded by saying: “Come on, we’re not trying to ban everything!”

Banning Styrofoam containers for food packaging is far more popular on the West Coast. It’s already enacted in Portland, Seattle, and lots of California cities, including Santa Cruz, Alameda, and Santa Monica. San Jose, which already banned plastic bags, now merits the rank of largest California city (population wise) to mandate against Styrofoam.

However, it’s still a latecomer when compared to the remainder of the surrounding Bay Area; both Oakland and San Francisco have banned food-packaging Styrofoam since 2007.

Speaking of which, San Francisco also banned plastic bags from stores and toys from McDonalds’ Happy Meals – not to mention a number of practices beyond the commercial sphere, like releasing butterflies at special events or playing street chess. The term “Ban Francisco” has not become a common title for the California city, however.

Recently, when San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener announced a plan to tax soda, he had to reiterate a point:

“It’s not a nanny state at all; we’re not banning anything.”

From Scott Wiener’s defensive comment it’s apparent that, even in a city that bans assorted products and practices, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reputation has certainly denoted a legacy of “nanny-state” across the country – no matter how righteous his personal or environmental health intentions are.

Bloomberg’s term ends on Dec. 31, and while mayor-elect Bill de Blasio campaigned as the anti-Bloomberg on most platforms, he does agree with the former in supporting action against Styrofoam and sugary drinks. No preemptive ban or nanny nicknames are yet in place for de Blasio.

As for San Jose, chain restaurants are to refrain from Styrofoam packaging starting January 2014, and local ones are allowed an additional year to either stop using the material or prove that they require a “hardship exemption”.

“I think it’s a good ideal in the long run,” Matt Lee, the owner of San Jose’s Sonoma Chicken Coup said during an NBC interview, “but in the short term, I think there may be some issue[s] with how to transition.”

Lee reasons that food container alternatives to Styrofoam will become cheaper because of higher demand, and that change will give manufacturers incentive to compete for customers when they are selling the same products. Hopefully the environment will experience the speculated alleviations as well.