Single-serve foam containers will be banned in the city of New York starting July 1.
The single-serve foam containers that come with New Yorkers' coffee, lo mein and other food to go are about to hit the road themselves.
Next month, New York will become the largest city in the country to prohibit restaurants and other food establishments from putting their victuals in expanded polystyrene. Enforcement of the ban won't begin for six months, though, and the moratorium could be extended until a legal challenge by the foam industry is resolved. Also, businesses with annual revenue of $500,000 or less can apply for an exemption.
But business owners have started to think about alternatives and how they will be affected as the city moves toward materials considered greener. Most say foam containers cost less than half as much as the cardboard or plastic ones that will remain legal, although when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg administration pushed the foam ban through the City Council in 2013, city officials said the price difference was marginal and getting smaller.
Tom Patilis, who has owned Perista Restaurant, a diner in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, for more than 40 years, heard about the ban on the radio.
"I don't like it, but I understand it," he said, citing the environmental rationale. "Slowly we'll get accustomed to it."
He prefers foam because it keeps food warm longer and preserves its quality. It is also cheaper: Patilis pays $17.95 for 200 foam containers, about 9 cents each, but $48.22, or 24 cents each, for the same quantity of aluminum ones. He plans to raise prices to keep up with costs.
"I can't really charge what other people in Queens or Manhattan charge," he said. "People in the Bronx don't have as much disposable income."
Mostafa Mohammed serves at least 100 customers a day from his halal-food truck on East 44th Street and Third Avenue. He pays about 22 cents each for plastic containers but just 9 cents each for the expanded-polystyrene equivalent.
"I'm sad to stop [using] the foam because it's cheaper," said the food vendor of 20 years.
Mohammed said foam containers are easier to manage, especially when dealing with the lunchtime rush on his own. He plans to continue using polystyrene until the ban fully goes into effect. Once it does, he said he will have no choice but to increase prices.
"I deal mostly with the middle class. The high prices aren't good for them," he said. "Everyone is suffering, but what are you going to do?"
Shin Kim, the manager of Everyday Gourmet Café on East 45th Street and Lexington Avenue, isn't opposed to the ban, which he heard about through word of mouth. He has used polystyrene cups and containers for more than a decade because they insulate better than paper products, which he said are priced two to three times higher.
"It's going to cost us more," Kim said. "We may need to raise prices, but not by much. Customers are not going to come if the price is too high."
New Yorkers on the whole appear more enthusiastic about the ban than merchants are.
In a 2013 Quinnipiac University poll, 69 percent of city voters supported the ban, which they said was justified because plastic foam blows around and becomes litter, takes hundreds of years to degrade and cannot be recycled economically.
The city has also said foam cannot be recycled, although the American Chemistry Council has been pushing back against that claim, saying there is commercial demand for recycled EPS.
"If there's enough research to show that foam containers are harming the environment, we should be cutting down on usage," said Brian Philip, 31, a customer at Perista in the Bronx. "We have to do a better job of caring for the environment."
The Bronx resident said other substitutes are a "no-brainer" and that the ban will force people to learn about biodegradable alternatives. He foresees higher costs but is willing to incur them.
"If we expect business owners to make that sacrifice," Philip said, "we should make it also."