August 24, 2013

Maine Voices: Panel pondering polystyrene ban needs to collect, consider the facts

The group seems bent on adopting a ban before investigating whether it even makes sense.

By SHELLEY DOAK, CURTIS PICARD and DICK GROTTON

AUGUSTA - The three statewide trade associations contributing to this commentary are delighted to serve on a task force or working group to conduct objective discussions of worthwhile ideas and proposals.

We were pleased to be invited to join Portland's Green Packaging Working Group at the request of the City Council to review and advise the council's Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee regarding a council order that read, "Consider an ordinance or recommendation to ban the use of non-recyclable polystyrene foam (food) containers in the City of Portland."

We assumed that our working group deliberations would be thorough and objective and would reach positive, proactive and effective goals for all stakeholders.

At its first meeting, however, this body was instead charged with drafting an ordinance banning the use of polystyrene foam, on the flawed assumption that circumstances warranted only this course of action. From the outset, it was clear that the stated end game of the preponderance of working group members was not really to study the issues of polystyrene usage but rather to move directly to adopting a ban primarily based on the Freeport model of 20 years ago.

The chief concern of polystyrene foam opponents appeared to be litter. The task force was so intent on crafting an ordinance to ban polystyrene products that it established no coherent process for discussing and weighing the merits of the proposal itself. In fact, nowhere in the record is there evidence to support an outright ban.

Litter concerns all of us, but litter is a people problem, not a materials problem. Those who would heedlessly toss a polystyrene cup on the ground would be just as likely to do the same with a plastic or paper cup. Changing the form or composition of the container is not likely to change how people dispose of it.

In San Francisco, a litter study concluded that eliminating all food-related polystyrene would not reduce litter but would simply change the type of litter found. It showed, for example, that paper-cup litter of all kinds (hot, cold and other) increased from 1.82 percent of total litter in 2007 to 2.41 percent in 2008, while polystyrene cups decreased from 1.13 percent to 0.78 percent during the same period.

Litter is a problem of improper disposal of waste products by disrespectful or careless people or waste systems, such as the city of Portland's open-top refuse collection bins, which permit paper and other waste products to be carried by the wind.

This long-standing, curable litter contributor is still waiting to be addressed by the city while we discuss bans on products which have been demonstrated not to impact litter.

We know the positive attributes of polystyrene foam food packaging: It is the most effective product used to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Polystyrene foam is preferred by the Food and Drug Administration as a food packaging material because of its ability to control temperature and microorganism growth.

In its rush to push through a polystyrene ban, the Portland task force did not conduct a thorough economic impact study that such a ban would have on Portland businesses.

For example, paper coffee cups are generally plastic lined paper and cost three to four times the cost of polystyrene cups, not to mention the larger environmental footprint to produce and ship these heavier products. Customers frequently use two plastic-coated paper coffee cups to avoid the discomfort of handling hot beverages, and when they do, the cost of products becomes six to eight times greater.

Ultimately the additional costs get passed on to the Portland consumer. The ban will surely cost city businesses tens of thousands of dollars to provide less effective alternative products.

In its haste, the task force drafted an ordinance without first considering or stating what problem it was attempting to solve. It is prudent to insist that this body first articulate what issue it is trying to address before imposing such a radical solution. In fact, all polystyrene produced in Portland, not just the tiny fraction composed of food service containers, likely represents one-half of 1 percent or less of the city waste stream!

The next task force project will attempt to ban or tax plastic bags. Really? Are these the important issues facing the city?

Shelley Doak is executive director of the Maine Grocers Association; Curtis Picard is executive director of the Retail Association of Maine; and Dick Grotton is president and chief executive of the Maine Restaurant Association.

 

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