Good riddance to the foam take-out carton

Strike another blow against so-called convenience and bring back the paper coffee cup with the Greek columns: foam cups and other polystyrene foam packaging, even packing “peanuts,” are going bye-bye in New York City.

They’re already banned, or will be, in over 100 jurisdictions in the United States, including the District of Columbia; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Minneapolis and San Francisco, and some 90 other municipalities in California. But the New York City move may signal the death knell for the stuff most of us call by its common (and technically misapplied) name, Styrofoam.

In a way, the end seems to have been long-delayed; remember, in one of its most progressive moves ever, McDonald’s stopped using the stuff for its chicken and hamburger containers nearly 25 years ago (though they kept foam cups till 2013).

This is a small but symbolic victory, part of an encouraging trend that indicates there are considerations beyond ease and profits.

But environmentally, it won’t make much of a difference. Nonprofits and small businesses can become exempt — ludicrous exceptions, since even a spokesperson for the New York State Restaurant Association called the cost of replacement packaging “nominal” — and foam peanuts can still be used in packing originating elsewhere. The 28,000 tons of the stuff New York City collects annually will decline significantly, but it won’t disappear. And while that sounds like a lot, it’s less than 1 percent of what the city picks up curbside. Nor does the ban address rigid polystyrene like that used in CD cases, which accounts for another 30,000 tons of junk.

So if the ban were totally successful, it would reduce the amount of polystyrene in landfills by less than 50 percent, and the amount of overall curbside collection by less than half of a percent. Not exactly a revolution in waste reduction. (There are other reasons to ban polystyrene, which is a suspected carcinogen.)

But to see the ban in context generates hope. In addition to forcing both industry and consumers to seek alternatives, the ban’s importance lies in the ability of the city to get it enacted, an effort that began with the Bloomberg administration and was completed by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s.

Of course, “Big Plastic,” or whatever you want to call it — in this instance represented by the industry leader Dart Container Corporation and the trade group American Chemistry Council — fought hard against the measure, even successfully stalling it for a year in an attempt to demonstrate that the foam could be recycled. The city remained unconvinced, and the ban will take effect July 1, though it won’t be enforced until next year.

Combine the surge in these bans with the probably more important and increasingly popular bans of — or taxes on — one-time-use plastic shopping bags, and you start to see a pattern: municipalities and sometimes even states are asserting themselves against the “right” of industry to sell whatever it wants, and more of the public is willing to have government alter its behavior when the reasons are sound. (The just-passed soda tax in Berkeley fits into this pattern.) That combination is leading to victories for the environmental and public health movements, and it’s changing people’s behavior.

Plastic shopping bags are a visible and intractable nuisance as well as a long-term danger to health — the slowly degrading plastic leaches toxins into the environment for centuries — and a well-publicized threat to wildlife; 95 percent of the seabirds examined in one North Sea study had plastic in their stomachs. In clogging storm drains, they’ve even been found to increase the danger of flooding. (You might read, or re-read, the 11-year-old Ian Frazier piece in The New Yorker about snagging bags out of trees, which comes to mind whenever I see a bag stranded and waving from a limb or some barbed wire, or simply floating through the air like a balloon.) The collection of plastic bags costs taxpayers a bundle, roughly $25 million annually in California alone.

A statewide ban on plastic bags is on hold in that state, where, according to the environmental group Californians Against Waste, 400 of them are used per second. But they’re still banned in over 130 jurisdictions, containing a third of California’s population. They’re also banned in dozens of other communities nationwide. (Not New York City, though; a shame.) Perhaps more impressive is the global activity against plastic bags: in 2002, Ireland instituted a 15-euro cent tax per bag (it’s now 22 euro cents), which helped reduce usage by 95 percent while raising money for recycling and waste reduction initiatives. Seeing this success, several European countries followed suit; Italy banned non-biodegradable plastic bags entirely, joining Rwanda, China, South Africa and other countries that have gotten rid of ultra-thin bags and begun charging customers for thicker plastic versions.

The California measure was to go into effect this July, but the American Progressive Bag Alliance, whose chief called the ban “a terrible piece of job-killing legislation” (even though a significant portion of the bags are produced in other states), appears to have forced a referendum. This 16-month delay will allow manufacturers to sell around 9 billion extra bags,worth as much as $145 million. That’s down from its pre-ban peak but still a staggering number when you consider almost all of them are used only once.

But the trends are clear: noxious, petroleum-based containers that do not lend themselves to recycling and are easily replaced are on the way out, if not via national legislation or the Environmental Protection Agency then through local and state laws.

There is, however, another issue here, and that is changing culture. Plastic bags could, of course, be re-used, at least a little bit. Almost no one does that, because they’re not especially sturdy, they’re uncomfortable to carry and because we’ve been trained to think of them as disposable.

But in a world that is continually being reminded that resources and landfill are limited, curbing products that waste both makes sense, not only for its direct effect but for its cultural changes. I saw this myself in the course of the last month, during which I’ve been mostly in Berkeley.

Generally, I would call myself a modestly law-abiding recycler, or a half-hearted begrudging one, anyway. But in my first few trips to the supermarket in Berkeley I felt not exactly ashamed but out of step: nearly everyone was carrying their own bags into the store. And there I was, paying 10 cents for a paper bag.

That’s a price I can afford to ignore, but within a week, I’d joined the crowd. The reasons, I think, range from wanting to be part of the community to recognizing that it just isn’t that onerous to walk down the street with an empty canvas bag. (It’s even easier if the bag is in your car.)

Within another week, I was bringing once-used fruit-and-vegetable plastic bags back to the market to use again; I mean, why not? Which almost leads me to suggest that we start carrying re-usable containers for take-out food, as some people have begun to do for coffee. Yes, it’s less convenient. But convenience isn’t everything.


By Mark Bittman from the New York Times on Jan. 28, 2015.

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