Styrofoam, the poster child for the early environmental movement and irresponsible consumerism, has made a splashy return to New York City this summer in the form of Big-Gulp sized cups for McDonald's new "Sweet Tea."
Some officials are sour on the idea of the product that was behind widespread understanding of the term "biodegradable" and yesterday called for legislation to ban it from restaurants throughout the state.
"There are all kinds of alternatives out there that are not nearly as destructive to the environment and are cost-competitive," said State Senator Liz Krueger (D- Manhattan).
In the early 1990s, McDonalds famously ran away from the polystyrene stuff that it once used to keep "the hot side hot and the cool side cool" on its McDLT.
"Styrofoam is widely used by restaurant companies, grocery stores, retailers and manufacturers," Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for McDonald's said in a statement. "Singling out McDonald's is not only unfair, but it is misleading. It is important to note that Styrofoam is only used in a small percentage of our packaging in the U.S."
Styrene, used in production of Styrofoam, is considered a possible human carcinogen. And it takes centuries to break down.
"This cup will in all likelihood still exist 500 years from now," Assemb. Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan) said, holding a McDonald's Sweet Tea cup. San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Monica have banned it, and Seattle is considering following suit.
As maligned as polystyrene has been over the last two decades, Styrofoam has never gone away. Dunkin Donuts uses Styrofoam, as do city schools.
"No other product on the market insulates as well, and it's also inexpensive. That's why it's so popular," said Ray Ehrlich, regional manager for Government and Environmental Affairs at the Dart Container Corporation, a leading maker of Styrofoam food containers. "Overall the environmental benefits are the same as and sometimes better than other products."
On its Web site, Dart argues that Styrofoam doesn't break down and therefore won't release unhealthy chemicals into the soil. Besides, most biogradable products, like paper cups, are coated with plastic and end up unrecycled in the landfill beside Styrofoam anyway, Ehrlich said.
At least one New Yorker yesterday wasn't going to buy into the environmental-friendly claim, arguing instead for coroporate responsibility.
"McDonald's is such a big chain," said Seth Williams, 35, of Brooklyn. "They should be the first ones to try to do something."
Getting rid of Styrofoam is a problem, critics say. The city has a pilot program in which it sends a portion of the estimated 850,000 daily Styrofoam lunch trays it uses to California, where they are recycled.
"In the same way that it persists in the environment, for decades it has persisted as an environmentally troublesome choice for consumer uses," said Eric Goldstein, Director of the National Resources Defense Council's NY Urban Program.
Great moments in Styrofoam history
Dow Chemical researcher Ray McIntire accidentally creates Styrofoam, only a few years before the fast-food revolution.
The Ronald McDonald character makes his debut with a Styrofoam burger strapped to his belt.
Portland, Ore. bans use of Styrofoam in restaurants.
McDonald's sues Portland, but ends up dropping Styrofoam use entirely.
McDonald's reintroduces Styrofoam to hold its sweet tea drink.
Seattle considers Styrofoam ban.
July 17, 2508
Styrofoam cup you used today will still exist, sitting in a landfill.