Following the lead of several cities in the state, California legislators are considering the ban of Styrofoam throughout the entire state. If the ban follows through, California would be the first state in the nation to ban the controversial plastic.
The bill, proposed by Democratic state Senator Alan Lowenthal, would make it illegal for restaurants, grocery stores, and food vendors in California to sell food contained in Styrofoam containers. By the year 2016, the ban would completely be in effect. Senator Lowenthal says at least 50 cities in the state have already banned Styrofoam and use greener alternatives to Styrofoam containers.
The proposed bill exempts schools, city, and counties if they can recycle at least 60 percent of their foam waste by instituting special recycling programs.
Senator Lowenthal and supporters of the bill believe Styrofoam causes numerous problems. Also known as polystyrene, the petroleum-based plastic is a major source of litter in California, commonly found scattered on beaches and in waterways. Environmentalists argue that trash Styrofoam now exceeds cigarette butts in the state. At trash pickup events, Styrofoam is increasingly becoming the most frequently collected item.
Trash Styrofoam can also be eaten by animals; it is rather common to see birds pecking away at leftover food in Styrofoam containers.
Styrofoam is not biodegradable and cannot be recycled or composted without great difficulty. Usually, recyclers do not bother with Styrofoam because the material has minimal scrap value. Why would recyclers spend time and money recycling Styrofoam if it offers no profit? In fact, Styrofoam’s strength, low cost, and durability that appeals to businesses is the same reason why many environmentalists detest it.
Additionally, in a 1986 report by the EPA, Styrofoam is considered the fifth largest source of hazardous waste. Not only is Styrofoam destructive to the environment after its life as a container, the process of manufacturing it is pollutive to the air and water. Also, Styrofoam’s large volume takes up valuable space in crowding landfills.
The EPA regards Styrofoam as a possible carcinogen. It contains numerous toxic chemicals that can be released and contaminate food and drinks if heated in a microwave. The health effects of exposure to polystyrene include skin and eye irritation, depression, headache, fatigue, and kidney problems.
Despite all the health and environmental benefits that can be reaped with abolition of Styrofoam, businesses and California’s economy may suffer from the ban. Gold Rush Grille owner Joe Thompson opposes the ban because most of his customers order carryout. He argues that containers that are environmentally friendlier are twice as expensive as Styrofoam containers. Says Thompson, “So what happens to me is I have to lay off a part-time employee or I have to take a full-time employee to part time.”
Gary Honeycutt, owner of BJ’s Kountry Kitchen, also opposes the ban. His restaurant uses about 26,000 Styrofoam clamshells per year because of the large volume of customers that order to-go. Honeycutt opposes switching to greener alternatives because they lack the strength and durability of Styrofoam. Says Honeycutt, “We put cheese on those omelets. And when we put the cheese on, it’s really hot and bubbly and it goes right through the biodegradable stuff.’’
In a time of economic woes, an outright ban on Styrofoam may benefit the environment but could also cause significant harm to businesses in the process. In fact, avoiding the Styrofoam ban may create jobs in the form of trash cleanup crews and provide incentive for recyclers to develop cost effective recycling or disposal methods of Styrofoam. Also, instead of completely banning Styrofoam, manufacturers should be pushed to clean up the process of producing Styrofoam or developing greener alternatives that have the qualities and properties of Styrofoam that make it desirable to businesses.
How about pushing scientists and researchers to develop a method to safely disintegrate Styrofoam already in landfills?
Lastly, a ban on Styrofoam would not allow people to be more environmentally conscious and learn to be more responsible. Simply taking away the source of the problem does not give people the chance to become responsible or proactive in taking care of the environment and keeping it clean. For instance, wouldn’t events such as the upcoming California Coastal Cleanup Day be less of a showcase of environmental responsibility if there was less trash to pick up?
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/fillmorephotography/525736705