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The tide turns against polystyrene containers and plastic bags in New York

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Addressing the Ulster County Legislature
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Addressing the Ulster County Legislature

Addressing the Ulster County Legislature

The Hudson Valley and New York City are turning a corner in the decades’ long fight against trash in our waterways. With the 4th Annual Riverkeeper Sweep – the Hudson River’s largest cleanup event – less than two months away (registration begins April 1) we are ecstatic about recent victories and growing momentum for trash free waters. These victories, most recently in Ulster and Putnam counties, to ban polystyrene (Styrofoam) foam in restaurant and government facilities respectively, up the ante in our call for New York City to pass its pending plastic bag law. This bill is being considered just months after the city finalized its own ban on polystyrene foam.

“Plastic pollution not only leaches toxic chemicals into our river, but wildlife is harmed – sometimes fatally – when animals mistake the bags for food,” says Dana Gulley, Manager of Outreach and Volunteer Programs at Riverkeeper. “We see a lot of plastic in the river during the Riverkeeper Sweep; everything from the tiny plastic discs on the inside of bottle caps to patio chairs, and of course, the ubiquitous plastic bag.”

Polystyrene at Little Stony Point, Hudson Highlands State Park

Polystyrene at Little Stony Point, Hudson Highlands State Park

A recent study published in PLOS One estimates global waters contain over 5 trillion particles of plastic, weighing over 250,000 tons. However, local citizens are demanding change and driving local solutions to this global problem.
 
 
 
 
 
For example:

  • On March 17, the Ulster County Legislature voted to ban polystyrene products in all food service establishments and county government facilities, after the urging of Riverkeeper and county residents.
  • Earlier in March, the Putnam County Legislature took a first step by banning polystyrene in government facilities. The law takes effect this June. Riverkeeper submitted a letter of support for this effort.
  • Last June, Hastings-on-Hudson became the first municipality in Westchester County to simultaneously ban single-use plastic bags and polystyrene food containers. The law went into effect at the first of the year.
  • The Village of New Paltz in Ulster County banned single-use plastic bags last November. The law goes into effect this April.
  • Albany County banned polystyrene in chain restaurants in December 2013, and the law went into effect a month later.
  • New York City’s food service establishments, stores and manufacturers may not possess, sell, or offer for use single-service polystyrene foam articles or loose fill packaging, such as “packing peanuts” in New York City by January 2016. The law was passed in December 2013 and goes fully into effect in January 2016 after a six-month grace period beginning in this summer.

Hudson Valley Residents Speak Out Against Polystyrene

New Paltz resident Jo Hee Park-Cunningham

New Paltz resident Jo Hee Park-Cunningham

As Ulster County resident Jo Hee Park-Cunningham mentioned in her public comment, “polystyrene is fascinating if you think about it— designed for one time use, but lasts forever in our environment including the Hudson River and Atlantic Ocean.” At public comment, many residents mentioned that unlike many products in the waste stream, polystyrene is non-recyclable and non-compostable.

Alternatives are Feasible, Economic, and a Business Opportunity

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Most importantly, many economical and less environmentally damaging alternatives are available on the market. New York’s very own Ecovative Design grows 100% biodegradable “polystyrene” and “plastic” materials out of mushrooms. In Beacon, New York, local entrepreneur and owner of Zero to Go, Sarah Womer, designed a whole business model around minimizing waste. Commenting on her business philosophy and recent victories Sarah explains, “In regards to single-use products like polystyrene and plastic bags, if it’s not recyclable, not compostable, we shouldn’t be producing it.”

Image: Surfrider Foundation

Image: Surfrider Foundation

A Call to Action NYC: Rally to Can the Bag at City Hall

In a March 3 letter to Mayor Bill DeBlasio more than 70 organizations called on his administration and City Council to pass a proposed bag bill by Earth Day – April 22, 2015. The letter notes that similar bag ordinances have decreased single-use plastic bag consumption by 60 to 90 percent. In New York City this would decrease the annual single-use plastic bag consumption from 10 billion per year to between 1 billion and 4 billion single-use plastic bags polluting our environment!

Join Riverkeeper, advocates, and New York City Council members at a rally on the steps of City Hall on Monday, March 23 at 12 p.m. as we ask the city to “can the bag.” This rally increases the pressure on city councilmembers to protect our waters, health, and environment by Earth Day.

We also need the public to speak out. Below are three actions you can take right now to help pass this law.

1. Join us at City Hall for a Rally, Monday, March 23 at 12pm
2. Call and Write Your City Council member
3. Call and Write Mayor DeBlasio

And of course, mark your calendar for the 4th Annual Riverkeeper Sweep on Saturday, May 9!
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Correction March 23, 2015: A previous version of this post incorrectly limited the scope of the Ulster County polystyrene ban to chain restaurants. In fact, the ban extends to chain restaurants, all food service establishments and county government.

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