Along with pillowy heaps of steaming rice, hot sauce and shredded meat, Styrofoam containers are practically ubiquitous among the city’s halal food carts. The foam trays contribute to the food trucks’ tantalizingly cheap offerings. But your favorite corner gyro or chicken biryani could soon leave you scrambling for extra change.
Last week, New York State Supreme Court judge Margaret A. Chan allowed a ban on single-use Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) foam products and loose fill packaging (aka Styrofoam cups, containers and packing peanuts) to move forward. The ruling effectively ended a three-year legal battle between the city’s Department of Sanitation and the Restaurant Action Alliance, which opposed the new law.
The ban was first debated in 2013 with the aims of curbing the waste overflowing the city’s dumpsters and introducing recyclable alternatives. It officially took effect in 2015, but implementation was held up due to the lawsuit.
It will finally be reinstated on January 1, 2019. So your local halal guy is free to keep dishing out his $5 biryani in Styrofoam in this six-month grace period, during which the city will mount widescale public education efforts to inform vendors about the ban. To that end, New York mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted with fervent enthusiasm.
As of early this week, word of the ban hadn’t yet circulated among many of the city’s food truck vendors and restaurateurs. Alam Girmiah, an employee of a halal food truck at the corner of Astor Place and Broadway in the Village, frowned and gestured with his gloved hands to the Styrofoam trays stacked next to him. While he couldn’t confirm, he imagined a dish would “cost more money to make” if vendors were forced to use pricier alternatives to foam. Higher prices could, in turn, lead to reduced foot traffic from lower-earning customers. “This food, only lower-class people [buy it]… So they have to budget. So if you think about high price, it affect[s] the business.””
The city mentioned in a press release earlier this week that businesses and non-profits earning less than $500,000 per year could qualify for financial-hardship waivers. Therefore, some of the city’s food truck vendors and small businesses will likely get a reprieve from the foam prohibition. But others will not.
A representative for the Street Vendor Project, which advocates on behalf of the thousands of mobile food purveyors operating across the city, said by email that it held no position on the issue. Some felt the ban would be cost-prohibitive, whereas others thought they could find alternative packaging for only a few cents more.
Other restaurants have successfully broken with their Styrofoam habits without feeling the pinch of their bottom line. Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern is one such place. Eric Carson, grandson of the owner, said they phased out their iconic Styrofoam beer cups nearly three years ago after the original announcement of the ban. The timing was just right.“It kind of made sense for us from an environmental standpoint. It cut down on our garbage by, I don’t know, sixty or seventy percent. People were kind of disappointed at first, but in the end, I don’t think it really affected our business.”
In a surprising twist of fate, their business may even have profited somewhat from the ban. “In all honesty, because it was given at a discount and it was so much [beer], a lot of the people who ordered these Styrofoam cup[s] of Budweiser…would [now] buy a pint of a more premium beer. Which cost double the price for less.”
But it seems the environmentally-friendly trend hasn’t spread to other Brooklyn outposts yet. Bedford Avenue fixture Turkey’s Nest Tavern, which in 2015 predicted it would have to raise the price of its margaritas if a ban went into effect, was still rocking the massive Styrofoam cups as of Tuesday afternoon.