Strategy & the Story Behind the Albany County Styrofoam Ban

by Wendy Dwyer

ALBANY, NY: Tina Lieberman spoke at the November SPB dinner. For Tina, this was her first attempt at getting a law passed and she said it took a lot of people. Tina asked people who had helped in some way (writing letters, attending hearings, signing petitions, etc) to stand up and almost everyone in the room had helped!

Tina said Albany County Executive, Dan McCoy, felt the letters to the editor really influenced the legislators. There were thousands of signatures on petitions, many calls, emails and more – all in support of the ban.

Tina helped coordinate the “Styrofoam Free Coalition” of volunteers who worked hard to help the polystyrene ban pass. The coalition had lanyards made with the “Ban The Foam” logo. Supporters wore them to meetings, and even legislators in support started wearing them. The coalition also had information on polystyrene (or expanded Polystyrene Foam, EPS) printed to educate people.

“Styrofoam” is actually a trademark for insulation (extruded polystyrene) made for homes by Dow, Dow does not like the fact that the word is being used in a negative way when people are actually referring to polystyrene. Polystyrene never biodegrades in the environment – it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Polystyrene is a chain of styrene monomers which is stable. Styrene is a toxic substance made from fossil fuels by-products benzene and ethylene. Hot foods placed in styrene are reported to cause styrene to leach into the food. Styrene has also been proven to leach into acidic food, fatty foods and alcohol products. There are significant health concerns including cancer for workers in Styrene production.

Albany County Legislator Chris Higgins attempted to get a Styrofoam ban passed initially. In 2013 a partial success to ban polystyrene was signed into law by the County Executive. This law only applies to chains operating 15 or more stores or restaurants nationwide such as Dunkin Donuts, Cumberland Farms etc. The second attempt to pass a complete ban in March 2017 failed 21-16. Victory happened on the third attempt to pass a ban on polystyrene; the law passed 23-13 on August 13, 2018 and was signed by the County Executive on September 12, 2018. The ban only applies to single use food service packaging like clamshells, cups, bowls and plates.

Tina got involved after the first attempt to pass this law when lobbyists came and convinced the legislature that polystyrene was a good product.

Tina outlined the strategies the volunteers used: First: Do research: The website was very helpful. Brookline, MA. is one of 20 communities in Massachusetts that had passed bans on styrofoam and plastic bags and its Sierra Club Legislative Chair, Clint Richmond, was a great advisor. Next: Find allies with groups and legislators. Then: Attend public hearings, listen carefully to what the lobbyists are saying. Research facts to refute the lobbyists. Go on to: Gain public support, tabling, petitions, door to door to businesses. From here the volunteers created the Styrofoam Free Directory of 40 + restaurants that have agreed to not use polystyrene in their business ( Next: Visit legislators and include supporting legislators in conference calls to agree on direction, assign jobs. Solicit people to write letters to the editor. Create Action Alerts to get people to public comment periods; maintain an action alert list to mobilize people quickly

Tina and others needed to figure out who the lobbyists were such as Dart Corporation initially then American Chemistry Council. Know who you are up against!

Lobbyists came in from around the state. The American Chemistry Council represents about 150 chemical, plastic and chlorine businesses. They are a member of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council). They provide P.R. for plastics and chemicals companies. They create doubt and confusion such as saying polystyrene can be recycled; the American Chemical Council used this tactic in NYC as well and it is not true or accurate.

The lobbyists historically said they would pay for polystyrene recycling facility, find a market, and said they had companies that wanted it. This was disproved when NYC sent people to see the place where the recycling of polystyrene was supposed to take place. Turns out, recycling was judged not to be economically feasible and minimal polystyrene recycling was happening. The lobbyists had completely fabricated the idea of a robust polystyrene recycling industry.

Other strategies Tina recommended include: show up well prepared, dress neatly and work fast – don’t allow the lobbyists time to make their case .

Know talking points and arguments being refuted. Each person that speaks should represent one point so as not to duplicate. It is also helpful to bring props, such as showing what could be used in place of polystyrene that is comparably priced or just a few pennies more.

The night of the vote the lobbyists brought in buses of people in green shirts that said “Packing Team” from the Genpack corporation with large handmade signs urging legislators to reject the ban. Turns out, they were being paid! Carol Waterman discovered this and announced this fact when it was her turn to speak at the hearing.

Tina notes lobbyists always claim economic hardship to refute plastic bans, such as stating that the high cost of polystyrene substitutes will put restaurant owners out of business. Tina even visited business owners that signed forms against a polystyrene ban who did not necessarily understand what they signed.

Take away points: Count the votes! Make a list of legislators and where they stand. Failure is okay. Go back and do more. Work on getting supportive members involved. Always fact check legislators and lobbyists. Build relationships, be prepared and strategic.

Tina went on to suggest alternatives to use for polystyrene, and reminds people never to reheat food in any plastic whatsoever, as per Dr. David Carpenter former Director of the Wadsworth Center of the NYS Department of Health.

Malcolm Bliss of Community Solar with Danielle of Solarize Albany read a thank you letter from Solarize Albany and Community Solar thanking Tina for her work and gave a donation to the Sierra Club to honor her. Many thanks to Tina and all for her work!

Now that we have had a victory with the ban on food service polystyrene, it’s time to start a new campaign to ban single use plastic bags.

Paul Miller, a member of the Albany County Legislature spoke next. Paul demonstrated in a wonderful powerpoint about the importance of banning single-use plastic bags.

There are a trillion plastic bags being used per year, or two million a minute being thrown away. Plastic bags are a fossil fuel product made from polystyrene and do not biodegrade. They littler waterways, environment and land fills. They are a risk to animals from ingestion, nest building and entanglement leading to poisoning, choking, blocked ingestion and death. Humans risk ingesting micro-plastics and leached toxins through contamination of our food and water supply . They adversely affect agriculture, public health and water treatment.

Paul informed us there is now one pound of plastic for every three pounds of fish and by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish by weight. Every minute, one garbage truck of plastic is dumped in our oceans. The UN has declared plastic a “planetary crisis”. Plastic has been found in dead birds’ stomachs. Cigarette filters that are made of plastic litter our waterways as well and are dangerous to animals .

Paul points out so much packaging is single-use now; unlike years ago when packages could be refilled or reusable such as milk bottles. Paul wonders if Stewarts would go back to reusables; they were one of the last to stop using glass bottles (some farms still do and this is available at some co-ops like Honest Weight). Paper bags and boxes are better. We should encourage stores to use paper, cardboard and reusable bags by providing these to customers instead of plastic. It is important to cut up plastic six pack rings as animals get caught in them. Paul reports the U.S. is lagging behind the rest of the world; California banned plastic bags in 2014 and taxed paper bags. NYS used 23 billion bags in 2017.

Paul suggests that Albany County lead the way to ban single-use plastic bags — who would like to help?

Goals for proposed legislation: Reduce pollution, reduce waste management costs, improve public health, carbon reduction, require recycle bins in grocery stores. Plastic bags can not be put into recycle bins; place a fee on bags and replace with reusable bags.

For more information please email Tina Lieberman at

Tina responded to a question about micro-plastics in sea salt. She commented that plastics never go away – plastics get into the environment, photo degrade from the sun and get smaller and smaller. The planet is now full of trillions of particles of plastic – even in single cell organisms and even in our tap water. As much as 325 pieces of microplastic have been found in 93% of plastic bottled water from all around the world. Ulster County recently passed a plastic bag ban and put a fee on paper bags.




Published in December 2018-January 2019
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