Grasping at straws and other polystyrene products

Photo/Sierra Club

South Lake Tahoe grasping at straws and other polystyrene products

by Allen Best

Anybody who has walked along a creek or river has undoubtedly seen the discarded foam cups and other detritus of our throw-away plastic culture. Some people are disgusted by the sight of litter, but what is more worrisome is what cannot be seen.

The plastic disintegrates into tiny particles but biodegrades very, very slowly. Fish take in these tiny particles of plastic. Frogs do, too. The bits of foam and other types of plastic are everywhere. And they’re not going away. Rather, all this continues to accumulate, most notably in that big swirl in the Pacific Ocean.

Should polystyrene products be banned? A growing number of local jurisdictions in coastal states have taken a hard line against polystyrene, including Styrofoam and other foam varieties. Now, mountain towns are starting to do so, too.

In California, South Lake Tahoe’s five-member council this week unanimously agreed to push along a proposal to sharply restrict use of polystyrene products in restaurants and stores. A more precise proposal is scheduled to return to the council on March 20.

In Colorado, the Avon Town Council is also expected to take up the matter of polystyrene in March.

Berkeley, Calif., banned polystyrene foam in 1988, the first such ban in the United States. Now, 114 towns, cities, and counties in California have enacted bans; the state has 498 municipalities altogether. Jurisdictions in other, mostly coastal states, both along the Pacific and Atlantic, have also adopted restrictions.

See Surfrider list of ordinances in California, Maine, New Jersey and other states.

Manufacturers have stoutly resisted, showing sufficient muscle that they have stalled any such ban in New York City and put up a good fight in Los Angeles. California’s state government has twice chosen not to adopt a state-wide ban.

The argument generally comes down to whether the product needs to be banned. Industry and business groups have argued that stepped-up recycling and anti-litter programs will sufficiently handle the problem. However, in op-eds in the Los Angeles Times and on HuffPost, they have presented no evidence that such efforts have worked anywhere.

The Sierra Club argues that while polystyrene products cost less than other alternatives, that ignores environmental costs. There is no need for this because there are many alternatives that are readily available.

First, a note about terminology. Such bans are often mistakenly called bans on Styrofoam. That’s a brand name, like a Chevrolet. Nobody yet has singled out Styrofoam, a product of Dow Chemical first created in 1947. Another expanded polystyrene foam was also marketed under the trade name Dylite.

Foam products are generically called expanded and extruded polystyrene.

Polystyrene was first discovered by a Germany apothecary in 1839. It was first commercially manufactured in 1930 and, in 1937, Dow Chemical introduced it into the U.S. market. Not all polystyrene is foam. It can be a hard plastic, too, as is the case with straws and lids. For recycling purposes, both are No. 6 in the triangular symbol.

Just how easily they can be recycled is another matter, one that was at the center of debate when New York City considered a ban. The city adopted a ban but it was overturned in court.

In California, the 114 cities and counties who have adopted restrictions have most commonly cited environmental effects, according to a report prepared by the staff of South Lake Tahoe for elected officials.

This environmental impact has two groundings. First, it is made from non-renewable petroleum products. Second, these foam products are “uniquely problematic when they become litter as EPS (expanded polystyrene) is a lightweight, durable material that is not biodegradable. Its foam structure allows it to break easily into small pieces, making it difficult and expensive to remove from the environment,” according to the staff report given city councilors this week.

The California Department of Transportation finds that expanded polystyrene foam comprises 15 percent of storm drain litter.

At Lake Tahoe, the polystyrene products are a major problem. Two local environmental groups, the League to Save Tahoe and Keep Tahoe Blue, have sponsored cleanup of the lake’s 182 miles of shoreline. From 2015 to 2017, volunteers picked up 35,516 pieces —a good many of them polystyrene.

The intent of South Lake Tahoe is to lead local efforts to crimp the proliferation of polystyrene. It’s the only municipality along the lake, but there are three counties—Placer, Eldorado, and Washoe—with jurisdiction. The city intends to take the case for regulations to the other jurisdictions, according to Tracy Sheldon, communications manager.

The direction given by the council this week was for drafting of an ordinance that will ban use of polystyrene products at take-out restaurants and also in retail sales, such as for coolers as might be sold at Kmart, as well as single-use food containers sold at retail stores. Alternatives to the food containers can be obtained for an incremental cost increase of 1 cent per coffee cup to 8 cents for the clam-shaped containers typically used by restaurants for take-home food.

South Lake Tahoe intends to exempt polystyrene products with food that come pre-packaged at stores, such as Lipton’s Cup-a-Soup and similar products. Also exempted are egg containers and the foam used to sell meat products. Grocers are working on alternatives.

In Colorado, the Avon Town Council last year levied a 10-cent charge on all paper bags while banning single-use plastic bags at grocery stores. Separately, the town looked at a ban on polystyrene products. Preston Neill, the deputy town manager, says the town council has asked for a proposal to address polystyrene. But the town staff has not yet figured out what that proposal will look like.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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