Schenectady County

Ice cream shop owners frosty over NY styrofoam ban

Bill Miller, vice president of purchasing and marketing at Hill & Markes Inc. displays non-styrofoam food containers at a trade show Tuesday at River Stone Manor, March 2, 2022.

Bill Miller, vice president of purchasing and marketing at Hill & Markes Inc. displays non-styrofoam food containers at a trade show Tuesday at River Stone Manor, March 2, 2022.

GLENVILLE — Ice cream shop owners gearing up for spring openings are having to reconsider how to dish up sweet treats under the state’s styrofoam ban.

In between talking about the latest confections in the ice cream industry from boozy milkshakes to nacho take-offs made with waffle cone chips, regional business owners were looking for alternative options to styrofoam containers at Hill & Markes’ annual ice cream and restaurant trade show at River Stone Manor on Tuesday.

The ban on most styrofoam containers and packaging materials included in the 2020 state budget went into effect on Jan. 1 of this year. The ban is meant to eliminate “one of the top contributors of environmental litter,” according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Styrofoam does not easily biodegrade and the lightweight material often breaks apart to become microplastic pollution that negatively impacts wildlife, waterways and other natural resources.

“We understand the reasoning and support the decision that was made,” said Bill Miller, the vice president of purchasing and marketing at Hill & Markes.

Yet, Miller said the state did not make a concerted push to inform business owners and consumers of the rule until late last year despite ample lead time.

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“It’s coming at a very challenging time,” he added.

Businesses hurt by the impacts of the pandemic already grappling with skyrocketing costs and supply chain issues are now being squeezed by the need to shift from less expensive styrofoam containers to costly alternatives that can be difficult to find, Miller said.

On average, Miller estimated a single styrofoam food container starts at around 8 cents, whereas a single plastic container starts out at around 24 cents. The fact that most businesses order in volume means the price difference between the materials are amplified.

“At a minimum it will be two times the price,” Miller said.

The cost of switching from styrofoam ice cream dishes to plastic is a huge concern for Dawnn Johnston, owner of Hillbilly Fun Park in Fort Ann. She is planning to stock up on containers before opening for the season around May to try to beat supply chain issues.

“We don’t have a price yet, I’m sure it’s going to be a big cost,” Johnston said.

The ice cream and miniature golf business still has leftover styrofoam containers from last season that Johnston plans to use up despite the ban. Customers prefer styrofoam that keeps ice cream cold longer without making hands chilly to plastic dishes, she said.

Although Hill & Markes began alerting customers to the ban last spring and sourcing alternatives, Miller said many businesses waited until the last minute to make the switch.

Before the ban, the mid-sized distribution company based in Amsterdam sold millions of styrofoam liquid and food storage containers to restaurants, medical facilities, schools and other organizations each year. The sharp rise in takeout options during the pandemic likely boosted sales.

Those sales are now being replaced with recyclable paper or plastic and compostable fiber containers. Supply chain issues have forced Hill & Markes to seek out multiple producers of those items to meet demands.

“It does not look like 2022 will be the end of supply chain shortages,” he added.

Although Brenda and James Jennings have never used styrofoam containers at Humpty Dumpty Ice Cream & Subs in Saratoga Springs, they acknowledged that supply chain issues could be exacerbated by the shift of other businesses away from the material and ultimately impact their ability to stock up before their planned opening next month.

While the goal of the styrofoam ban is to remove the material from the wastestream, Miller admitted that it will be up to consumers whether alternative materials simply find their way to landfills instead of foams.

“We have a big focus on sustainability at Hill & Markes, so we’ve been pushing sustainable options for quite some time,” Miller said. “In terms of whether they’re being recycled or not, in a lot of cases that is up to you and me when we take that product home what we do with it.”

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Recyclable materials must be cleared of food waste before being sent to processing centers or they end up in the wastestream. Compostable materials cannot simply be thrown away, consumers either have to process the materials on their own or take them to a processing site.

“Compostability doesn’t mean you can just throw it in your trash and it’s going to turn into dust. There is a composting process,” Miller said. “ I know in my community there is a recyclable container or a trash container and that’s it. Technically, I would have to compost that myself or bring it to a larger facility of which there are not a lot right now.”

Although the state ban applies to most food containers and packaging materials, Daniel Glasheen said it is unfair that raw meat or fish meant to be prepared at home can still be sold in styrofoam containers under an exemption included in the state’s ban.

Glasheen plans to use up his remaining stock of styrofoam containers when he reopens Bon’s Ice Cream & Adirondack Miniature Golf in Lake Luzerne for the summer season before being forced to make the switch to paper based products.

Although he supported the state’s ban of single-use plastic bags, Glasheen said the styrofoam ban is “not right.”

“They were all over the place, they blow and go into the streams,” Glasheen said. “I can see plastic bags, but not the foam.”

Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.

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