By a vote of 9-6, a Portland City Council task force recently voted to ban the commercial use of polystyrene packaging (as it is commercially known, Styrofoam). It should come as no surprise that this is yet another Mayor Michael Bloomberg idea, who seems to have quite the following amongst nanny-staters well beyond the reach of the Big Apple.
The task force – the “Green Packaging Working Group” – recently discussed the use of polystyrene, relying on unfounded scientific claims and a complete misunderstanding of the polymer.
Environmentalists sometimes have good intentions. Clearing the streets of trash, rivers of litter, and human bodies of toxins are noble causes. The science behind claims that polystyrene is toxic to humans, cannot be recycled and does not biodegrade, however, simply does not exist. Evidence to the contrary seems to escape the chemo-phobes seeking to purge from coffee shops and Chinese restaurants containers that make life much easier.
Polystyrene is non-toxic. The collective evidence shows that consumers are not at danger. The fact that phrases like “limited evidence” and “reasonably anticipated” are contained numerous times in reports like those conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program (NTP) seems irrelevant to people who cherry-pick health studies for political reasons.
According to biochemistry Professor Bruce Ames of UC-Berkley, “over half of all chemicals tested, whether natural or synthetic, are carcinogenic in rodent tests” – generally because the rodents are pumped full of chemicals at rates hundreds or thousands of times higher than any human would ever experience.
This might be why not a single regulatory body in the world has classified styrene as a human carcinogen.
The precautionary principle is at work here. Notably a European notion, a common tactic for environmentalists is to ban or restrict substances if they are perceived as harmful, even if there is a complete absence of hard data to prove such. Scare tactics can be a strong motivator for regulations and restrictions, despite the negligence of economic or health harms associated with them. This is not an American standard for policy, as we utilize something known as the “risk standard,” which requires proof before we ban things.
Banning polystyrene could have a detrimental financial impact. One local business owner estimated that using the more expensive paper cups in Dunkin’ Donut franchises would increase annual costs by $10,000 per year. The Portland School Department’s director said that “costs quadrupled when the district decided to use paper lunch trays instead of polystyrene trays, going from 3 cents a tray to 12 cents.” Imagine that impact city-wide, all because of junk science.
Polystyrene can be recycled. In fact, its recyclability can be significant in many “green causes” like “green buildings” and alternative energy production. When it is cleaned, ground down, and heated, it is an extremely inexpensive insulation material. Most windmill blades use polystyrene as a base component and it plays a role in the production of many solar panels. The material is strong, inexpensive, durable, and lightweight.
Recycling certainly requires the consumer to go that extra yard and choose to not throw their coffee cup into the street, so policies should incentivize collection as opposed to banning use. Because of its uses, it is extremely valuable once compacted. Manufacturers nationwide can and do use the product in more than green causes.
Additionally, the plastic coating on paper cups, the ones made to hold liquids for more than 4 seconds, makes them nearly impossible to recycle.
Companies can be incentivized to collect and reuse polystyrene. Walmart, for example, has a recycling program and uses what is collected for picture frames. The city can also encourage the creation of a collection site, similar to ones in Kennebunk or Camden. In 2010, 71 million pounds of expanded polystyrene were recycled including 37.1 million pounds of post-consumer packaging and 34.2 million pounds of post-industrial packaging.
At the end of the day, the Portland City Council should attempt to examine the hard data and facts when it comes to polystyrene and the environment. Nanny-state European-style bans on things is not the best course of action given the possible financial impact and lack of scientific evidence used by environmentalists with a political agenda.