Boohooing Over the Nanny State – NYC Proposed Ban on Polystyrene Cups & Containers

nannystateEver notice how the same people who freak out about increasing taxes also go mental over the expanding Nanny State?  In many instances the very same maligned Nanny State legislation actually saves tax dollars.  For example, Mayor Bloomberg is widely cited as the Poster Boy for the Nanny State and yet his bans on mini-keg sized sodas, smoking and requirement of calorie counts on menus are all designed to cut down on obesity, diabetes and other health conditions that cost taxpayers millions of dollars a year.  His latest proposal to ban styrofoam food containers is also designed to save money.  Interestingly, the Bloomberg Administration has been silent on the health concerns surrounding styrofoam, but they’re there and they’re real.

The Bloomberg Administration argues that banning styrofoam will increase recycling and lessen landfill impacts, thus saving money.  According to the New York Post, “it costs the city an average of $86 per ton to landfill some 2 million tons of regular garbage — including Styrofoam — per year.  By contrast, the city nets a payment of at least $10 a ton for recycling paper and about $14 a ton for recycling glass and plastic.”.  I can’t find specifics for how much the Bloomberg Administration thinks banning styrofoam will save but even the biggest anti-Nanny State conservative has to be in favor of netting payments for recycling instead of spending money on landfills.

The biggest foes of this legislation, besides the styrofoam lobby, are the vendors and restaurants because polystyrene is cheap and convenient.  My recommendation to combat that legitimate concern would be for the city to subsidize the extra cost of using compostable or recycleable food containers with some of the money its saving through the styrofoam ban.  That way the city still makes money and this legislation isn’t hurting struggling vendors and restaurants.  Once there is enough demand for non-polystyrene containers, the price of those should start to decrease and the city could stop the subsidy.

When you figure in the health benefits of this legislation and the potential millions it may save by reducing cancer risk to New Yorkers, it’s a no brainer.  Styrene was added to the list of “known carcinogens” in 2011.  Styrene leaches from styrofoam containing hot beverages or hot or oily food into our drinks and food.  Food and beverages with a high fat content (such as some hot cocoa or oily foods such as Mexican food with cheese or many Indian foods with high butter content) tend to leach more styrene from styrofoam.  So that awesome warm and fuzzy hot cocoa in a styrofoam cup moment with your kids may actually be poisoning them.  To be fair, styrene is also contained in some foods in larger quantities but it’s not clear whether naturally occurring styrene is synthesized differently in the body when eaten as part of those foods as opposed to carcinogenic manmade styrene.  Bottom line is that it makes sense to reduce our (and particularly our childrens’) exposure to known carcinogens.

As we all know, polystyrene convenient but it is an environmental disaster.  It doesn’t break down in the environment for something like 500 years, it’s very difficult and expensive to recycle, it harms marine life, and it floats everywhere.  Alaskans are reporting that their beaches are covered in polystyrene washing up from the Japanese tsunami.  Polystyrene accounts for 30% of the weight of the total debris that has washed up from the tsunami in Alaska.  Lessening our dependence on styrofoam is a definite plus for the environment.

Saving taxpayer dollars, saving the environment, saving our health?  Maybe Nanny knows best.

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