January 20, 2022

A foam farewell

State ban on polystyrene costs some restaurants

Sarah Bullock/staff reporter

Moises Guevara, manager of Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant in Cortland, stacks polystyrene take-out containers Friday, the last day restaurants could use them before a state ban began Saturday.

Several greater Cortland area restaurants stopped using polystyrene packaging long before a state ban took effect Saturday — years ago at Green Arch restaurant on Elm Street, Cortland, said owner Matt Petrella.

“We transitioned away from Styrofoam a long time ago,” Petrella said.

However, others said the extra costs for aluminum and plastic containers could pinch profits.

Garcia’s Mexican restaurant on Main Street in Cortland uses a range of containers: foam, reusable plastic and aluminum.

“The Styrofoam costs about 9 to 10 cents,” said Manager Moises Guevara. “The aluminum or the other kind, made of plastic, is 60 cents.”

Rising food costs, supply chain issues and a two weeks shutdown while the staff recovered from COVID-19 all marked the restaurant’s pandemic experience, Guevara said. Using costlier take-out containers is another challenge.

“We understand the fact that it is for the environment, but they didn’t give us another option,” Guevara said. A cheaper container would have eased the transition. “They (the state leaders) made decisions without thinking about how it affects people.”

While plastic and aluminum containers are available, Guevara worries what would happen if many restaurants switch at once, given national supply chain problems.

“Actually, I don’t know if we can get it,” Guevara said. “Maybe it’s not going to be enough. Who knows?”

Almost all restaurants — 93% have a smaller profit margin than before the pandemic, according to the New York State Restaurant Association.

More than two out of three restaurants, 71%, had fewer sales in August 2021 than in August 2019.

But polystyrene is bad for humans and the environment, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

“Foam packaging is one of the top contributors of environmental litter, causing negative impacts to wildlife, waterways, and other natural resources, as well as littering our communities and natural areas,” the DEC reports. “ In addition, foam containers and loose fill packaging, such as packing peanuts, are not accepted in most recycling programs in New York State because the foam is difficult to recycle and has a low value.”

Still, other restaurants have adapted. At Bru 64 on Main Street in Cortland, the takeout containers are cardboard boxes.

Brix Pubaria on Main Street in Cortland, uses no polystyrene, said Manager Jordan Prior.

“We’ve always been a pro-environment type of place,” Prior said, adding its plastic bags are reusable. “Our straws are plant-based.”