THE BLOG
04/22/2013 01:40 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2013

Will the Styrofoam Cup Survive Bloomberg's Nanny State?

Of all of New York City's mayors, none was focused more intently on "quality of life" issues than Michael R. Bloomberg, whom history will regard as a chief proponent of the nanny state. But is this what New Yorkers can expect from their mayors in the future? Or will leaders look back on what Bloomberg did and realize that good intentions do not necessarily make good laws?

"The most accurate predictor about where America is going is Bill Gates," says Jay Townsend, a former Republican senate candidate in New York. "Gates said our future leaders will be those who empower, not dictate." Gates and Townsend may be right, but that is certainly not the model that Bloomberg has followed.

In 2003, the recently-elected mayor imposed a ban on cigarette smoking in bars and restaurants, a move that damaged the city's hallmark nightlife industry. While he eventually earned notable public approval of the ban, he undercut that support years later by implementing a moratorium on smoking in all public places, including locations like Central Park. Ordinary citizens, even non-smokers, believed it was illogical that someone could not light up in a wide-open outside space or even display cigarettes in a store window.

Then came a ban on trans fats and a demand that restaurants, especially fast food outlets, post the caloric content of the food they serve. Those policies, like the smoking ban, were not without substantial costs to the city. "[Bloomberg] has spent approximately $1.5 billion a year in the health department," one journalist noted, "on banning trans fat, requiring restaurant chains to post calories on their menus, and smoking initiatives."

Next Bloomberg advanced his controversial ban on large-sized "sugary" drinks, which prohibited a food vender from selling any drink over 16 ounces. This regulation met with public disapproval, as his critics argued that Bloomberg had taken the nanny state too far. Surely, a consumer has the right to buy whatever size drink he wants. A New York State Supreme Court judge agreed, calling the law "arbitrary and capricious" when he struck it down on the day before it was scheduled to take effect.

Finally, in this succession of contentious and often ill-fated initiatives, Bloomberg proposed doing away with Styrofoam food packaging. the ban would actually be on all plastic foam substances used in food packaging, since Styrofoam, a brand name owned by Dow Chemical Company, represents only one source of plastic foam. This new ban would affect businesses as diverse as local Chinese take-outs and the 480 Dunkin Donut stores located throughout New York City's five boroughs.

Of his proposed prohibition on Styrofoam, Bloomberg said in a recent State of the City address: "Something that we know is environmentally destructive, that is costing taxpayers money, and that is easily replaceable, is something we can do without. And don't worry: the doggie bag and the coffee cup will survive just fine." Maybe, but not as they're known today and not without disruption to the food vending business.

Bloomberg's proposal is the basis of a new piece of legislation expected to be submitted to the New York City Council in the immediate future. If passed, it will have to withstand legal challenges similar to those mounted against the ban on sugary drinks. Should the law be implemented, there will be noteworthy ramifications.

"The alternatives to Styrofoam are more expensive," says Andrew Moesel, a spokesman for the New York City Restaurant Association, who notes that one plastic foam container used for Chinese take-out costs between seven and eight cents, while a similar cardboard container costs 15 cents and a biodegradable plastic container costs between 30 and 40 cents. "If you are using hundreds of these containers a day, as some restaurants do, the cost adds up quickly. This law will have a real impact on the small and ethnic restaurants that use a large number of these Styrofoam containers or cups. Those are the people who can least afford to take the hit."

In addition, some foods will have to be delivered differently. For example, fish is often delivered to restaurants in plastic foam shipping containers, which simply cannot be replaced with cardboard containers. Whatever alternate process is developed to deliver fresh fish will cost more than plastic foam containers. What's more, the Styrofoam cup poses a different dilemma. One main alternative to the Styrofoam cup is the wax-lined paper cup. As it turns out, the wax-lined paper cup is not very recyclable either, and, because it takes more energy to create a wax-lined cup than a plastic foam cup, it actually leaves a larger carbon footprint, according to some sources.

But if the legislation stalls for any reason, the Styrofoam ban may never happen. After living in a nanny state for over a decade, some New Yorkers are fed up with being told how they can live their lives. The city will soon be embroiled in a mayoral race that will determine Bloomberg's successor. Whoever that is will likely not make quality-of-life issues a key component of the next administration. The growing backlash to the nanny state is simply too strong.

"The nanny state tells people they are not smart enough to make their own decisions," Jay Townsend says. "This is the antithesis of where society is headed. There is a limit to what government can do to police the decisions people make in their daily lives. Are we going to send policemen in to Dunkin Donuts to say, "You can't use Styrofoam cups'?"

As the mayoral candidates begin posturing for the fall campaign, none of them has made nanny-state solutions to today's problems a part of his or her campaign. So the days of Bloomberg's nanny state are numbered. This may save the Styrofoam cup after all.