Business owners have a lot on their plates. And if their plates happen to be Styrofoam, they've got even more to worry about.
That's because several cities and counties across the U.S. are mulling bans on polystyrene, the material used in Styrofoam cups, takeaway containers and packing supplies. Business owners and franchisees have long struggled with these bans, claiming they are expensive and unproductive.
Opposition to a recently proposed ban in Portland, Maine, was strong enough for the city to decide to send the proposed legislation back to a committee for review. International Franchise Association senior director Dean Heyl wrote to the Portland City Council calling the potential ban a “draconian step.” Heyl reported that other local businesses felt similarly, with the Maine Medical Center estimating that the ban would cost the institution half a million dollars a year in additional expenses.
But the added costs are just one problem. Opponents of the ban question whether alternatives to polystyrene are any better for the environment than polystyrene itself. Heyl of the IFA claims that common alternatives are more expensive, but not actually more environmentally friendly. Paper coated with wax is often used in place of polystyrene, but the coating makes it difficult for the paper to be recycled. Further, paper items that are compacted in dumps will not biodegrade if they aren't exposed to air, he says.
Dunkin’ Donuts has one of the most famous – or infamous, depending who you ask – polystyrene products with its foam coffee cup. The company says it has been on a mission for years to find a better solution. “Finding an alternative to the polystyrene foam cup is our company’s No. 1 sustainability priority,” Michelle King, director of global public relations at Dunkin’ Brands, said in a statement. “We’ve been searching for a cup solution for several years and our quest continues.”
Dunkin’ Donuts, like many franchises, doesn’t see a polystyrene ban as the solution. “A polystyrene ban will not eliminate waste or increase recycling; it will simply replace one trash with another,” says King.
Supporters of bans on polystyrene see the associated costs for businesses as necessary in preventing long-term environmental damage and hefty cleanup costs. “Polystyrene doesn’t biodegrade in our lifetimes,” says Bill Hickman, coordinator at Surfrider, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting oceans and beaches. “It’s really inexpensive to buy, but really expensive to clean up.” Banning plastic bags and polystyrene have been two of Surfrider’s major initiatives in its Rise Above Plastics campaign.
Hickman maintains that the ban is an essential first step in reducing the production of plastic that is unlikely to be recycled. In areas where the ban has been enacted, Hickman says, communities have witnessed community acceptance and compliance.
An Alternative to an All-Out Ban?
Polystyrene bans are in place in a number of cities, many concentrated in California. As the IFA waits to see what happens in Portland, the association has also spoken out against a proposal to ban polystyrene in chain restaurants in Albany.
Instead of bans, the IFA has been pushing for greater recycling options and collection programs. Polystyrene is not generally recycled due to the associated costs. Because polystyrene is low weight but high volume, it is very expensive and inconvenient to ship to recycling centers. Recycling items with food residue is an even more difficult process.
More than 2.5 million tons of polystyrene are dumped into landfills each year, according to Stanford Alumni Magazine. Currently, less than one percent of polystyrene is recycled.
Hickman, who admits he is not typically a fan of government regulation, sees steps outside of bans as worthy of investigation. Surfrider advocates for companies to adopt reusable options without being forced by the government. Hickman says reusable cups, silverware and containers can save businesses money in the long term and be used to increase brand awareness.
In terms of policy outside of bans, Hickman points to Extended Producer Responsibility, which imposes continuing accountability on producers over the entire life cycle of their products. Germany has used the policy to make producers responsible for product packaging after consumers discard it, putting the onus to recycle on companies that make items instead of consumers. However, as Extended Producer Responsibility laws are unlikely to pass anytime soon in the U.S., Hickman says polystyrene bans are still vitally needed as plastic waste skyrockets.