Do polystyrene bans actually accomplish anything?
The California rush to ban foam takeout food containers is starting to look like a frenetic race that would embarrass even the most aggressive Black Friday shoppers.
Currently, 119 cities and counties in California prohibit businesses from providing customers with takeout food packaging made of polystyrene. San Diego is in line to be the 120th. Others won’t be far behind. In September, the state barred food-service facilities from dispensing foam food containers on state-owned property, meaning buildings, beaches, and parks.
Don’t be surprised if legislators – especially in a super-sized liberal legislative majority – pursue a statewide ban in the upcoming session. Though Senate Bill 705, which would have stopped restaurants across the state from packaging to-go food in foam containers, failed earlier this year, expect lawmakers to charge hard out of the gates in 2019 with another attempt.
So why the hurry? Dan Jacobson, director of Environment California, tells us.
“Nothing that we use for a couple of minutes should pollute the oceans for centuries,” he said in a prepared statement. “We should not be putting our turtles and whales at risk for a cup that lasts two minutes.”
Jacobson’s complaints well summarize the zealous opposition to polystyrene. The prohibitionists imply that quite a few of us are intent on fouling the oceans with plastics and polystyrene and are perfectly happy to endanger marine life.
Of course, this isn’t true. Californians want to live in a clean state.
But someone, or something, has to be vilified, and that something is polystyrene itself. Often known by the brand name Styrofoam, polystyrene has become as unpopular in California as single-use plastic bags, plastic straws, and plastic utensils. Though polystyrene is recyclable and makes up only a tiny fraction of marine litter, it is treated as a lethal product deserving banishment.
Turning a consumer convenience into contraband is unquestionably a feel-good exercise, especially in a green state such as California. But are bans necessary?
No. And there are valid arguments that they are counterproductive.
Start with the environmental impacts of substitutes. Making a paper cup, for instance, requires the use of more resources than producing a Styrofoam cup. The paper manufacturing process needs 12 times as much water, 36 times more electricity, and the use of harsh chemicals, such as chlorine dioxide, to bleach the raw materials.
Paper cups also create problems when coated with petroleum-based polyethylene. It leaves them unrecyclable. Double-cupping for added insulation is another issue. It doubles the amount of waste and potential litter. An insulating sleeve on a paper cup has a similar effect.
Prohibition is also costly to small businesses, both those that use foam products and those that make them. Changing to alternative products can sometimes nearly double a small business’ packaging expenses, while manufacturers’ sales fall when bans are enacted.
During the SB 705 debate, San Francisco Democratic Sen. Scott Weiner said that “people are disgusted and horrified” by plastic litter and “are wondering why we are allowing this to happen to our planet.”
Salient points. Yet they widely miss the more important point: What is being allowed and shouldn’t be is not the freedom for businesses to provide customers with foam containers, but the careless trashing of public and private lands by a small minority.
While most businesses and consumers responsibly handle their trash, many are punished because a few don’t. Given this, policymakers and policy enforcers, at both the state and local levels, should act to ensure that litter laws are observed. Increase penalties, if necessary. Divert resources from useless and counterproductive programs — there are many to choose from — to fund anti-litter campaigns. Efforts would pay off, and not only in the reduction of foam litter, but in the reduction of all litter.
Prohibitions alone cannot achieve this. Though banning foam will surely reduce its presence in the litter and waste streams, it is unlikely to change the total amount of trash. The polystyrene containers we see blowing across streets and sidewalks and littering the beaches will be replaced by plastic-lined paper packaging. Until officials get serious about litter, its forms might change but its quantities won’t.
Further weakening the prohibitionists’ position is the fact that more than half of polystyrene litter is not made up of the takeout food packaging that’s being outlawed, but instead consists of polystyrene packing materials as well as broken coolers. Since this renders their argument much less compelling, it is rarely mentioned.
The majority of policymakers seem to listen only to one side when considering foam bans. They would make better policy if they opened up to all the facts, and only then made up their minds.