Plastics lobby tries to roll back wave to ban polystyrene.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
It’s energy-efficient, cheap and more environmentally friendly than most people realize. Heck, you might even call it sustainable. Contrary to popular belief, it is recyclable – and the claims that it poses a human health risk are unsubstantiated. If it ends up on streets, beaches and in the guts of wild animals, blame litterbugs, not the product.
So argues Mike Levy, director of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group, in a well-timed effort to counteract momentum for a regional ban on polystyrene, better known as Styrofoam. The ACC has retained PR-heavyweight Armanasco Public Relations, Inc. to make its case locally, and Levy himself addressed the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 13. Two days later, Monterey Regional Waste Management District’s Litter Abatement Task Force presented the district’s board with a draft polystyrene ban.
The ban’s supporters, including a half-dozen environmental groups, say the ubiquitous plastic foam litters land and sea, swells landfills, leaches toxic chemicals and harms animals that mistake it for food. The cities of Capitola, Santa Cruz and Santa Monica have banned take-out polystyrene packaging, and Santa Cruz County is scheduled to consider a similar ordinance in March. As the ban’s supporters focus on Monterey County, so does the plastics lobby.
The waste district’s draft ordinance would require food providers, government facilities and their contractors to replace single-use polystyrene products with biodegradable, compostable or recyclable alternatives. Public works directors could grant one-year exemptions, and businesses could charge a “take-out fee” to cover the difference in cost.
But the plastics industry isn’t ready to lose its business in polystyrene or plastic bags, another material local officials have talked about banning. (A state law requires large grocery stores and pharmacies to sell reusable bags, and accept plastic bags for recycling.) California restaurants spent about $210 million on plastic packaging in 2005, Levy says.
And so Levy traveled to California from Arlington, Va., to promote the ACC’s $2.5 million contribution to statewide anti-litter and polystyrene recycling campaigns in 2008 – and lobby against potential plastic bans. “We’re not against degradables and we’re not against compost,” he told the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. “We’re against being singled out and the misconceptions.”
One such misconception, Levy says, is that polystyrene is not recyclable. “There’s a perception that you can’t recycle it, and that’s absolutely false,” he says. “Like all plastics, it’s a matter of getting the volume.”
Waste district spokesman Jeff Lindenthal isn’t so sure. “We kinda default to the California Integrated Waste Management Board’s statement that no meaningful recycling of polystyrene is happening in California,” he says. Local curbside recycling programs do not accept polystyrene, he says, and the district hasn’t found a recycler interested in buying Monterey County’s polystyrene waste.
Levy is appealing to the local business community to oppose the proposed ban. Restaurant owners would pay more for biodegradable food packaging, a cost he says the waste district hasn’t fully considered. “They haven’t requested a lot of input from the business folks at all,” he says.
Lindenthal counters that, after analyzing other cities’ polystyrene bans and crafting one appropriate to the region, the litter task force is now reaching out to local restauranteurs. “We had the California Restaurant Association person sitting at the table with us as we worked through these ordinances,” he says. “We were concerned about making sure we did hear from the business community.”
He also questions the ACC’s suggestion that all litter is created equal. Plastics stick around forever, he notes, while paper-based products biodegrade. “We’ve been looking at the results of local beach cleanups,” he says. “By volume, polystyrene is the biggest thing that’s being picked up.”
Carolyn Swanson of local biodegradable packaging distributor Passion Purveyors estimates that green food packaging costs 3 to 12 cents more per unit than petroleum-based plastic. But she hopes local restaurant owners will also consider the costs of litter and ocean pollution. “The defense of ‘well, it’s cheaper’ really isn’t true in the long run,” she says.
Adam Joseph contributed to this story.