TIME Environment

How the Atomic Age Left Us a Half-Century of Radioactive Waste

Plutonium Plant
Evans / ;Getty Images The American Atomic Energy Commision's plutonium production plant at Hanford, Washington, circa 1955

Dealing with nuclear waste at a plant in Washington State has proved an intractable problem. Why?

In 1951, atomic optimism was booming—even when it came to radioactive waste. In fact, entrepreneurs believed that the waste might pay off in the same way that coal tar and other industrial by-products had proved useful for the plastics and chemical industries. TIME reported that Stanford Research Institutes estimated they could sell crude radioactive waste from the Hanford plutonium plant in eastern Washington State at prices ranging from ten cents to a dollar a curie (a measure of radioactive decay). Every kilogram of plutonium the plant produced spilled out hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive waste. If the entrepreneurs were right, Hanford was a gold mine.

They were wrong. Instead, the former Hanford plutonium plant became the largest nuclear clean-up site in the western hemisphere. It costs taxpayers a billion dollars a year.

On the other hand, maybe they were right—just not the way they intended. Corporate contractors hired to clean up Hanford have made hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and surcharges, and, since little has been accomplished, the tab promises to mount for decades. Since 1991, the US Department of Energy has missed every target for remediation of Hanford’s deadly nuclear waste. Highly radioactive fluids are seeping toward the Columbia River watershed, while in the past two years 54 clean-up workers have fallen ill from mysterious toxic vapors. Last fall, seeking to finally get some action, Washington State sued the DOE to speed up the timeline and make the project safer—but, on Dec. 5, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice rejected the request. The express schedule was too expensive, they said, despite the fact that the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration is planning to spend a trillion dollars in 30 years to create a new generation of more accurate, deadly weapons. In fact, the DOE spends more money now in real dollars on nuclear weapons than it did at the height of the Cold War.

Unfortunately, the Justice ruling—to scrimp on radioactive waste management while the DOE spends lavishly on bombs—makes for business as usual in the history of Hanford.

It’s never been a matter of knowing the danger. In 1944, Hanford designers understood that the radioactive by-products issuing from plutonium production were deadly. Executives from DuPont, which built the Hanford plant for the Manhattan Project, called plutonium and its by-products “super poisonous” and worried about how to keep workers and surrounding populations safe.

At the same time, DuPont engineers were rushing to make plutonium for the first Trinity test in Nevada in 1945, and they did not pause to invent new solutions to store radioactive waste. Plant managers simply disposed of the high-tech, radioactive waste the way that humans had for millennia. They buried it. Millions of gallons of radioactive effluent went into trenches, ponds, holes drilled in the ground and the Columbia River. The most dangerous waste was conducted into underground single-walled tanks meant to last ten years. Knowing the tanks would corrode, as the high-level waste ate through metal, Hanford designers planned to come up with a permanent solution in the future. They were confident in their abilities. Had they not accomplished the impossible—building from scratch in less than three years a nuclear bomb?

But, as the years passed, no new answer surfaced to safely store nuclear waste. The Atomic Energy Commission, which was in charge of bomb production, left radioactive garbage to its private corporate contractors. For two decades, the AEC had no office to oversee waste management, nor any regulation. AEC officials didn’t know how much radioactive waste there was or where it was located. They also didn’t pay much fiscal attention to the problem. The AEC allocated to General Electric, which took over from DuPont in 1946, $200,000 a year for waste management, small change in nuclear-weapons accounting. In the same decade, the AEC handed over $1.5 million annually to subsidize the local school district in Richland, Wash., where plant workers lived.

Meanwhile, the temporary underground tanks remained long past their expiration date. In the early 1960s, the first tank sprang a leak. Dozens followed suit leaching into the ground a million gallons of high-level waste. From 1968 to 1986, Hanford managers built 28 new, double-walled tanks, designed to last from 20 to 50 years. What was the major design innovation after two decades of experience? An extra tank wall.

The explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 tore the plutonium curtain of secrecy surrounding Hanford. The newly renamed Department of Energy was forced to release thousands of documents describing how plant managers had issued into the western interior millions of curies of radioactive waste as part of the daily operating order. In the early 1990s, TIME recounted stories of people living downwind who had thyroid disease and cancer, caused, they believed, by the plant’s emissions. In 1991, the DOE resolved to clean up the Hanford site.

The agency hired the same military contractors that had managed the site while it was being polluted. Their main task involved building a state-of-the-art waste-treatment plant to turn high-level waste into glass blocks for millennia of safe storage in salt caverns. But by 1999, eight years and several billion dollars later, the DOE had to admit that its contractors had accomplished little. Multiple times, the DOE set new deadlines or hired new contractors, but the goalposts were always moved. In 2015, after decades of effort, the waste treatment plant is still in the planning stages. High-level waste remains in tanks, some of which continue to leak.

What makes dealing with nuclear waste at Hanford so intractable? The Savannah River Plant in Georgia also made plutonium and has successfully built a treatment plant. So too have the Russians and French. Despite the Department of Justice’s ruling, money is not the main problem. The current contractor, Bechtel Corp, has spent billions of dollars, yet has made little progress. Speaking this week, representatives of the Washington State Department of Ecology said that they would argue their case in federal court in February, hoping to get the DOE to commit to their timeline to get the waste treatment plant up and running. Decades after the story began, it continues.

So perhaps it’s a matter of history. Since the ’40s, Hanford contractors had enjoyed a free hand to produce plutonium and pollute with little AEC/DOE oversight. And for six decades reports of radioactive discharges were denied. It is hard to fix a problem one cannot see—and that’s been, by any measure, an expensive lesson.

Kate Brown lives in Washington, DC and is Professor of History at UMBC. She is the author of several award-winning books, including Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford 2013). Brown’s most recent book Dispatches from Dystopia: History of Places Not Yet Forgotten will appear in April 2015 with the University of Chicago Press.

Read a 1986 report on the safety of the American nuclear industry, here in the TIME Vault: Bracing for the Fallout

Read next: Tourists’ Trash Caused the Oddly-Colored Geysers at Yellowstone, Study Finds

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TIME India

India’s Tiger Population Has Risen Significantly Since 2008, Say Officials

INDIA-ENVIRONMENT-ANIMAL-TIGER
STRDEL—AFP/Getty Images A Royal Bengal Tiger pauses in a jungle clearing in Kaziranga National Park, some 280 km east of Guwahati, India, In this photograph taken on Dec. 21, 2014

The surge from 1,411 in 2008 to 2,226 currently comes despite widespread poaching

India’s tiger population has risen dramatically in the past seven years despite widespread poaching, smuggling and diminishing habitats, according to latest figures.

India’s Environment Ministry says that there are now 2,226 tigers nationwide compared with a historic low of 1,411 in 2008, Indian news channel NDTV reported.

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said India is now home to about 70% of the world’s tigers.

The news of the big cats’ booming population comes amid reports of a record number of tiger deaths between 2010 and 2014.

The previous tiger census in 2010 had pegged the total number at 1,706.

TIME Environment

A Bad Day for Climate Change Deniers … and the Planet

Deeper, hotter, sicker—and the oceans are only part of it
Roc Canals Photography; Getty Images/Flickr Select Deeper, hotter, sicker—and the oceans are only part of it

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Three new studies offer new proof of how bad the earth's fever has gotten

It’s not often that the climate change deniers get clobbered three times in just two days. But that’s what happened with the release of a trio of new studies that ought to serve as solid body blows to the fading but persistent fiction that human-mediated warming is somehow a hoax. Good news for the forces of reason, however, is bad news for the planet—especially the oceans.

The most straightforward of the three studies was a report from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirming what a lot of people who sweltered through 2014 already suspected: the year is entering the record books as the hottest ever since reliable records started being kept in 1880—and the results weren’t even close.

Average global surface temperature worldwide was 58.24ºF (14.58º C) — surpassing previous records set in 2005 and 2007 — and making 2014 a full 2ºF (1.1ºC) hotter than the average for the entire 20th century. And before you say 2ºF doesn’t seem like much, think about whether you’d prefer to run a fever of 99ºF or 101ºF. The planet is every bit as sensitive to small variations as you are.

“Today’s news is a clear and undeniable warning for all of us that we need to cut climate pollution and prepare for what’s coming,” said Lou Leonard, vice president for climate change at the World Wildlife Fund.

When it concerns the ocean, what’s coming may already be here. A sobering study in Nature looked at sea level rise in both the periods from 1901 to 1990 and from 1993 to 2010 in an attempt to sort out a seeming inconsistency: measurements from 622 tide gauges around the world showed that levels had risen 6 in. (15.24 cm) over the past century, but computer models and other tools put the figure at only 5 in. (12.7 cm). Here too, what seems like a little is actually a lot: a single inch of water spread around all of the planet’s oceans and seas represents two quadrillion gallons of water.

This could have meant good news, since it might have indicated that we’d overestimated the impact of melting glaciers and ice caps. But new computer modeling recalculated the degree of sea level rise over the last century and found that the tide gauges had it right all along, and the only thing that was wrong was that sea levels had risen more slowly than believed in the 90 years that followed 1900, and much faster in the 17 years from 1993 to 2010 — close to three times as fast per year. What does that mean in the long term? Perhaps 3 ft. (0.9 m) greater increase by the end of this century if we keep on the way we’re going.

Finally, according to the journal Science, at the same time sea levels are rising higher, marine life forms are growing sicker, with a “major extinction event” a very real possibility. All through the oceans, the signs of ecosystem breakdown are evident: the death of coral reefs, the collapse of fish stocks, the migration of species from waters that have grown too warm for them to the patches that remain cool enough.

What’s more, the increase in the number of massive container ships crossing the oceans has resulted in a growing number of collisions with whales — encounters in which the animals wind up the losers. Seafloor mining and bottom-trawling nets both plunder fish populations and further damage the environment in which deepwater species can live.

“Humans,” wrote the authors of the Science paper, “have already powerfully changed virtually all major marine ecosystems.”

No part of this bad-news trifecta is likely to change the minds of the rump faction of climate deniers — particularly in Washington. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who is set to assume chairmanship of the committee that oversees science in general and NASA in particular had this to say to CNN about climate change: “The last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming. Contrary to all the theories that they are expounding, there should have been warming over the last 15 years. It hasn’t happened.”

He’s wrong on the facts — as the new temperature readings demonstrate — and wrong on his interpretation of the science which shows that the rate of atmospheric warming has indeed slowed a bit in the past decade and a half. The reason for that seeming happy development is not that climate change isn’t real, but that the oceans, for now, are sopping up more heat than anticipated—see, for example, those migrating fish.

Meantime, Cruz’s Oklahoma colleague Senator James Inhofe is set to become chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. This is the same Inhofe who persists in his very vocal belief that climate change is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” and that even if it is true, it might actually be good for the world.

Ultimately, reason will prevail; in the long arc of scientific history it usually does. How much ocean and atmosphere and wildlife we’ll have left when that happens, however, is another matter entirely.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Travel

Tourists’ Trash Caused the Oddly-Colored Geysers at Yellowstone, Study Finds

Morning glory
Yellowstone National Park Lodges Morning Glory Pool at Yellowstone National Park

Tourist damage is not new for the beloved national park

For anyone who’s visited visited Yellowstone, our nation’s first national park, and marveled at the the vibrant hues of its hot springs—indigos, vermillions, and chartreuses—there’s evidence to suggest that the park’s technicolor spectacle is actually the result of tourist trash—tossed pennies, trash, and random objects.

A recent study conducted by the University in Montana and Germany’s Brandenburg University of Applied Sciences has determined that the thermal springs used to be a deep blue, but vandalism, especially to the Morning Glory Pool, has resulted in a rainbow of colors. And there’s no telling yet the true toll this abuse.

Tourist damage is not new: After WWII in 1947, a park geologist removed 55 wheelbarrows of debris from Yellowstone’s geysers and springs.

With the study’s findings as hard evidence, the national park system can begin an education campaign for visitors to help preserve some of our most precious—and fragile—national treasures. So next time you’re at Yellowstone (or any other park) and want to make a wish by tossing a coin into its gorgeous geysers, save it and donate to the U.S. National Parks Service instead.

This article originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.

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TIME Environment

The Nuclear Disaster You Never Heard of

Palomares
Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images The Jan. 17, 1966 catastrophe at Palomares was caused by an accident during the in-flight supplying of a US Air Force B-52 nuclear bomber by a KC-135 of the US Air Force above southern Spain

How the United States whitewashed (literally) a nuclear accident in Spain that still hasn’t been cleaned up

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

This month, with little fanfare, Palomares begins its 50th year as “the most radioactive town in Europe.” If you’ve heard of Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island but are unfamiliar with Palomares, you might wonder why. All appear in Time’s top-ten list of the world’s “worst nuclear disasters.” Palomares moreover has been called the worst nuclear weapons accident in history. So why do so few people outside Spain know about it?

The cover-up and whitewash were figurative, also literal. Though four nuclear bombs were rained on Spain, many vaguely recall a lone “lost” bomb, fished out of the Mediterranean intact.

So what exactly happened? On 17 January 1966, a US Air Force B-52 collided with its refueling plane, killing seven airmen and dropping four hydrogen bombs. Conventional explosives in two detonated on impact with the earth, blowing them to bits and scattering radioactive plutonium—a mutagen and carcinogen—over the farming town of Palomares, population 2000.

English-language journalists, though late on the scene, rushed their books into print, replicating oversights of the rushed cleanup operation and circulating the myth of a single lost bomb. Pioneering female foreign correspondent Flora Lewis screamed One of Our H-Bombs is Missing, borrowing a title from 50s Red Scare pulp fiction. Likewise demonstrating their national allegiances, British reporter Christopher Morris lamented The Day They Lost the H-Bomb and American science writer Barbara Moran, four decades later, decried The Day We Lost the H-Bomb.

Only New York Times correspondent Tad Szulc pluralized the threat with The Bombs of Palomares. He further measured the relative importance of events. “Although the long spectacular search” for the harmless fourth bomb—at the bottom of the Med for eighty days—“was to overshadow the village’s radioactivity problem in [U.S.] public opinion, the contamination was in reality the most significant” calamity. Even so, Szulc’s book, like all the others, gave inordinate attention to the “heroic” sea search and its mesmerizing high-tech submersibles. From Pinewood to Hollywood, Finders Keepers to Men of Honor, moviemakers followed suit, literalizing a single lost bomb, duly found by singer Cliff Richard or actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. (A notable exception: Michael Cacoyannis’s landmark The Day the Fish Came Out.)

So what was of greatest significance in early 1966? In addition to the seven airmen, plus eight more killed in a Palomares supply plane crash, people in Palomares suffered—and still suffer—potentially fatal radioactive exposures. At the time, no was evacuated; no one was officially informed for six weeks. Even then, U.S. Ambassador Angier Duke told the international press corps an unconscionable lie: “This area has gone through no public health hazard of any kind, and no trace whatsoever of radioactivity has ever been found.” Why then were nearly 5000 barrels of hot soil and crops shipped away for burial in South Carolina? Why today is plutonium found throughout the food chain in Palomares? Why is radioactivity evident downwind, in neighboring Villaricos?

Spanish authors and activists have provided answers, along with Israeli feminist Dina Hecht. However, Hecht’s extraordinary documentary film Broken Arrow 29, broadcast by Britain’s Channel 4 on the disaster’s 20th anniversary, has never been aired in the U.S. In the lead-up to the 50th anniversary, January 17, 2016, will Americans continue to cover their ears and avert their eyes?

What do Americans need to know? Of crucial concern, many Spanish injuries, fatalities, and miscarriages have been attributed to the disaster. But the United States government assumed limited liability, paying only property damages averaging $250 per person, accepting no responsibility for loss of life or loss of livelihood. To this day, U.S. authorities provide technical assistance, as they argue over “acceptable levels” of contamination. On her last official visit to Spain as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton repeated the usual platitudes and prevarications, even when informed of a secret U.S. dump discovered in Palomares in 2008.

Like this cover-up, the whitewash was not only figurative but also literal. The military’s 200-page Palomares Summary Report contains one solitary tossed-off sentence about radioactive contamination of local homes, not even referenced as such. Unspecified “buildings,” the report hedges, “were washed but in [some] cases this was not sufficient to lower the contamination level to the acceptable limit, and whitewashing had to be done.” In spineless bureaucratese, these passive verb constructions cloud procedures, obscure U.S. military agency, and naturalize what “had to be done.”

So who did what? Along with townspeople’s testimonies, Department of Defense footage first screened by Hecht helps piece it together, as it inadvertently exposes staggering environmental racism. Just as white officers ordered African American servicemen to shovel contaminants into barrels and launder contaminated uniforms, they likewise instructed a black enlistee with gloves but no mask to take radiation readings of buildings. When homes registered as radioactive, servicemen sprayed them with high-pressure water hoses over and over, damaging walls, roofs, and interiors, and exhausting local water supplies. When the homes still read as radioactive, troops whitewashed them, simply painting the plutonium into the surface of the house.

With a half-life of 24,000 years, the plutonium will long outlast the paint, insuring that children’s and animals’ inevitable scraping, licking, and eating of paint chips—so well-documented around lead-poisoning—will have alarming long-term carcinogenic and mutagenic effects. In years to come, periodic sanding for fresh painting will no doubt re-suspend plutonium particles and increase the probabilities of inhalation and lung cancer. Thus, as I summarized for colleagues at the American Historical Association’s 129th annual meeting, U.S. whitewashing has embedded contamination into the very structures of local communities, the very air of local environments.

What now? As the U.S. dickers over decontamination—not to mention reparations or reconciliation—organizers in Palomares promise openness and honesty, despite all the commercial advantages of keeping quiet. As former mayor Antonia Flores puts it, “Since no one cares a damn about us, we won’t forget.” Strategies of memorialization include street-naming, as with Bombards Street, 17 January 1966 Street, and 17 January 1966 Crossing, where I lived over the winter of 2011-12. I continue to conduct research there.

What do I see? Foremost: Resilience. After U.S. forces stole and depleted local water stocks, citrus groves dried up and died. After the flawed cleanup, six successive tomato harvests failed. After the agricultural economy collapsed, an exodus ensued, the population cut in half. But people bounce back.

As my forthcoming documentary photobook shows, whitewashing is resisted not only in annual protests and commemorations but in everyday practices of working, playing, talking and remembering. Farmers still till the land, children go to school, while on the outskirts of town, a rural sex industry has emerged, complicating liberationist calls to occupy liminal spaces. Low-budget tourists now frequent the Palomares environs, and where black servicemen once shifted toxic barrels, there are now naturist hostels and residential communities, a nudist beach with gay cruising ground, and a small strip of eateries, drag venues, gay bars, and heterosexual swingers clubs.

In the nuclear age, as the Palomares disaster semicentennial approaches, marginalized peoples adopt the most marginal lands.

John Howard, a professor of American studies at King’s College London, is the author of “Men Like That and Concentration Camps on the Home Front.”

TIME Environment

BP’s Oil Spill Fines Reduced by Billions

Plaquemines Parish Coastal Zone Director Hahan holds a tri-colored heron after spotting the seriously oiled bird along Queen Bess Island near Grand Isle,
Sean Gardner—Reuters Plaquemines Parish Coastal Zone Director P. J. Hahan holds a tri-colored heron after spotting the seriously oiled bird along Queen Bess Island near Grand Isle, Louisiana July 17, 2010. The BP oil spill has been called one of the largest environmental disasters in American history.

The maximum penalty is down to $13.7 billion

A federal judge ruled on Thursday that BP’s maximum fine for the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will be $13.7 billion, far lower than the previous estimate of $17.6 billion.

Federal magistrate Carl Barbier found that only 3.19 million barrels had been spilled into the ocean, compared with the government’s estimate of 4.09 million.

The third phase of BP’s non-jury trial begins Tuesday, when lawyers will argue over the exact fine per barrel. After that point, the actual fine will be assigned.

[Reuters]

TIME Markets

This is Why Trees Come Down When the Gold Price Goes Up

141339701
Getty Images

A new study establishes a connection between demand for gold and deforestation

The steep rise in the price of gold is a factor in the heightened rate of deforestation in South America, a new study has found.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Puerto Rico, says small-scale miners now find it profitable to try and extract the metal from low-grade seams underneath the region’s rain forests.

With the price of gold rising five times between 2001 and 2013, satellite data shows an area of 1,680 sq km cleared across forests in Brazil, Peru and the Guianas. Much of this was in protected areas, the Guardian reports.

During the second half of the period, deforestation doubled in speed as financial crises around the world caused the price of gold to shoot up.

Agriculture and logging are responsible for clearing more forest, but, researchers say, miners are more harmful to the soil and to water sources because of their use of mercury, cyanide and arsenic.

TIME Environment

Ingested Drugs, Passed Through Sewers, May Threaten Lake Michigan Fish

Study finds exposure to a diabetic drug can throw a minnow's hormones off balance

Researchers warned that a cocktail of ingested medications has slipped past sewage treatment plants and gradually accumulated in Lake Michigan, threatening to alter the hormonal balance of local fish.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences have detected traces of coffee, birth control pills and antibiotics in Lake Michigan’s waters, the Detroit Free-Press reports. The most prevalent drug was Metformin, a medication commonly used to treat Type 2 diabetes.

Fathead minnows exposed to Metformin at the same concentrations found in the lake exhibited unusual hormonal imbalances four weeks later. Male minnows, for instance, began to produce a hormone typically associated with female egg production, though researchers say they have not yet ascertained the long-term effects of the hormonal changes.

“It’s enough to raise an alarm bell that this might be something that causes changes in reproduction of fish,” study author Rebecca Klaper said.

Read more at Detroit Free-Press.

TIME White House

White House Targets Methane to Slow Climate Change

Oil Boom Shifts The Landscape Of Rural North Dakota
Andrew Burton—Getty Images A gas flare is seen at an oil well site on July 26, 2013 outside Williston, North Dakota. Gas flares are created when excess flammable gases are released by pressure release valves during the drilling for oil and natural gas.

It's 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The White House announced Wednesday morning a new plan to cut methane emissions in the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45% in the next ten years.

The reductions will come in part from fixing leaky equipment and the intentional “flaring” of gas at oil and gas production sites, said Dan Utech, the president’s special assistant for energy and climate change, in a conference call with reporters.

By stopping such waste, the White House said it will save enough natural gas in 2025 to heat more than 2 million homes for a year. The reductions will also be good for industry and the economy, Utech added, since businesses will be able to sell that saved gas on the market.

The U.S. oil and gas industry has grown enormously in recent years, making the U.S. the world’s largest gas producer. U.S. oil production is at the highest level in nearly 30 years. Current emission from the oil and gas sector are down 16% since 1990, Utech said, but with expanding production, those levels are expected to rise by more than 25% in the next decade.

The White House’s initiative comes on the heels of several other efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emission in recent years, including stricter vehicle efficiency standards and proposed limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. President Obama has vowed to reduce overall emissions in the U.S. by 26% (from 2005 levels) by 2025.

Methane, a powerful heat-trapping gas, accounts for just 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution, but the gas is an estimated 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Both Utech and Janet McCabe of the Office of Air and Radiation at the EPA, emphasized that the efforts to reduce methane emissions would be part of a larger economic and public health strategy. While Utech said that the administration is “not far enough down the track” to predict whether, and how much, new rulemakings would cost industry, he expressed confidence that costs would be minimal. If the administration’s proposal is realized, it would save 180 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2025.

McCabe said both her agency and the White House have been working closely with industry groups and other stakeholders. New rules, she said will build on existing initiatives and include new and modified sources that were not covered by the EPA’s 2012 rulemakings.

TIME cities

New York City Bans Single-Use Styrofoam Products

New York City Poised To Ban Styrofoam Food Containers
Spencer Platt—Getty Images A food cart worker filled a styrofoam take-out container for a customer in New York in 2013.

Ban will go into effect July 1

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg left office in 2013, but his plan to ban styrofoam is finally coming to fruition.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration announced Thursday that stores, food service establishments and manufacturers won’t be able to possess, sell or offer single-use styrofoam containers or cups — even “packing peanuts” — beginning July 1. The reason is purely environmental, as Expanded Polystyrene Foam cannot be recycled.

“These products cause real environmental harm and have no place in New York City. We have better options, better alternatives, and if more cities across the country follow our lead and institute similar bans, those alternatives will soon become more plentiful and will cost less,” said de Blasio. “By removing nearly 30,000 tons of expanded polystyrene waste from our landfills, streets and waterways, today’s announcement is a major step towards our goal of a greener, greater New York City.”

The containers are popular not only in restaurants that offer a takeout option but also among the hundreds of food carts and trucks that populate New York’s streets. Such vendors will have to seek out recyclable alternatives, though businesses with less than $500,ooo in annual revenue can apply for exemptions if using alternative containers would cause “undue financial hardship.”

Though New York is the largest city to ban this type of “dirty foam,” other cities including San Francisco, Seattle and Portland have enacted similar measures.

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