Supposedly civic-minded prohibitions on consumer conveniences always have unintended consequences. California’s single-use plastic bag ban, for instance, has led to a surge in E. coli infections, created a swarm of thicker plastics bags that are a greater environmental hazard than the outlawed single-use plastic bags, boosted shoplifting, and been the cause of countless broken eggs fumbled by shoppers trying to carry too many groceries in their arms.
The growing prohibitions on polystyrene, known to most by its brand name Styrofoam, will too yield unpleasant unintended consequences. The ban is not yet statewide, but legislative proponents will surely try again in 2019 to outlaw it in all of California after legislation failed in each of the last two years.
In the meantime, 119 cities and counties have some type of foam ban, with the city of San Diego soon to become the 120th.
The goal is to rid our streets, sidewalks, parking lots, open fields, beaches, and waterways of used polystyrene. It’s an admirable objective, and bans will certainly reduce the amount of foam in the litter stream. But bans won’t have a net positive impact. Styrofoam litter will simply be replaced by the alternatives to polystyrene take-out food containers and drink cups. A California Water Resources Control Board report says there would be no improvement because “mere substitution would not result in reduced trash generation if such product substitution would be discarded in the same manner as the banned item.”
When and where polystyrene is banned, businesses and consumers are forced to bear the costs of transitioning to other materials. In some cases, according to the California Restaurant Association, costs will more than double. Recycle Nation says that a paper cup costs about two-and-one-half times what a Styrofoam cup costs.
The San Diego City Council has acknowledged how taxing a ban will be by providing some small businesses with hardship waivers allowing them to slowly transition to alternatives. Yet that might not be enough. Many small businesses operate on such narrow profit margins that a ban, even one including waivers, could be a death sentence for them.
A key point being ignored in the debate is that a ban would have a negative environmental impact. Recycle Nation tells us that “it appears that going with Styrofoam is more eco-friendly compared to a paper cup,” due in part to the added resources needed to produce paper cups. They require 12 times more water and 36 times as much electricity to manufacture. A Dutch study further found sourcing material for foam cups and shipping uses 22 percent less petroleum than is needed for paper cups, and producing foam cups doesn’t require the use of harsh chemicals such as chlorine dioxide, which is needed to bleach the pulp used to make cups.
A ban would also unfairly isolate targeted businesses. Less than half of foam litter is made up of food-service products, says Steven Stein, principal of the Washington-based Environmental Resources Group, who “toured” the Los Angeles River and wrote in the Los Angeles Times that what he found was “a snapshot of what’s typically discarded throughout the county.”
“Foam transport packing materials used to protect shipments from breakage,” which cannot be covered by bans, makes up more than half of all polystyrene litter, says Stein.
It’s also worth noting that businesses paying more for polystyrene alternatives aren’t the guilty parties throwing foam into the litter stream. Yet the few who are ruining things for the many aren’t being held culpable by the prohibitionists.
Pursuing the polluters is a sensible approach. The California Water Resources has said that “ensuring compliance with existing statewide and local litter laws and ordinances would eliminate the substantial adverse environmental and economic impacts” from all litter, as well as preclude “the need for additional structural or institutional controls that generate their own nominal adverse environmental impacts.”
Communities know where their worst litter problems are located and should focus enforcement resources on those areas. It seems that in a state so obsessed with environmental perfection, officials would concentrate first on the source of the problem, litterbugs, rather than law-abiding businesses and consumers who just want to complete their transactions without government interference.
Bans, though, are more visible. They allow politicians to make a public show of their virtue. But they also create their own sets of problems. Lawmakers need to mindful of the damage they can do before they legislate for political gain rather than rational reasons. It’s a reality they should take into account when the statewide polystyrene ban comes up again in Sacramento.