Albany County has taken aim at Styrofoam — sort of. But the ban its Legislature approved Tuesday night, which applies only to businesses with at least 15 outlets nationally — in Albany County, that’s not too many — is a start. Now if only other, smaller businesses can be encouraged to abandon the material, and other counties pass similar laws.
Polystyrene foam is one of the best packing materials for hot food and coffee, which is why lots of restaurants and coffee shops use it. But it’s an environmental nightmare, mostly because it’s essentially nondegradable: When a careless consumer throws a Dunkin’ Donuts cup by the wayside, it’s likely to still be there a million years from now if no one bothers to pick it up. Similarly, when it gets dumped in a landfill (polystyrene is not easily recycled), it’s likely to remain there for a long, long time.
A number of restaurant chains have switched to less-offensive packaging (McDonalds, for example, stopped using polystyrene clamshells for its sandwiches more than two decades ago, and is planning to abandon its foam coffee cups soon; ditto Dunkin’ Donuts). But other chains and independents are still afraid to take the plunge. Styrofoam is, after all, so effective and so cheap.
But sound alternatives do exist, and though they cost a bit more, it’s a price consumers should be willing to pay. With polystyrene, the bill comes later, in environmental and landfill costs, and keeps coming.
As for municipal bans like Albany County’s (which doesn’t begin for another six months), there are a number of them in place around the country. As with trans fats, the more communities that enact them, the greater the likelihood that, rather than buy different containers for different municipalities, restaurant chains will simply abandon Styrofoam. Perhaps if that happens, local, independent businesses that haven’t already done so will follow suit.