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Portland Considers Ban on Styrofoam Food Containers
09/16/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

The Portland City Council is expected to vote tonight on whether to enact a city-wide ban on food containers made of polystyrene foam - more commonly known as styrofoam. If the measure passes, Portland would join dozens of other U.S. cities - mostly in California - that have taken similar action. Proponents of the ban say polystyrene foam is harmful tot he environment. But opponents say small businesses would pay a high price for a ban that amounts to little more than a fashion statement. Patty Wight reports.

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Polystyrene containers

The idea to ban expanded polystyrene foam in Portland began two years ago, when the city's public schools eliminated the material from their cafeterias. Shortly after, City Council Chair Ed Suslovic decided to form a task force to figure out how to reduce or eliminate plastic packaging city-wide.

"It is an environmental nightmare," Suslovic says. "It does not degrade environmentally. When someone drops a styrofoam product on the street, it ends up, typically, going into our wastewater system and out into Casco Bay."

Suslovic says if Portland schools could find easily available, cost-competitive alternatives, why can't the entire city? So the task force, which included a number of representatives from business, drafted an ordinance to ban polystyrene foam from retail food packaging - specifically takeout food containers, such as plates, cups, and bowls.

That may seem like a small change, but for Barbara Anania, who owns two variety stores in the city, it amounts to an extra tax on small businesses.

"Well, I don't think that the city has clearly investigated the impact it's going to have on a lot of small businesses," she says, "especially those that do a lot of takeout."

Anania says paper cups cost 8 cents more than polystyrene foam cups. She offers coffee cups made of both materials in her stores, and believes that it should be up to consumers to decide. "We probably sell 8 cups to 1," she says. "Most of our customers prefer styrofoam."

The impact would also be felt by hospitals, says Chris O'Neil, City Hall liaison for the Portland Community Chamber. He says Maine Medical Center did an analysis of its polystyrene usage in it cafeterias.

"All combined, they estimate it will cost them between $400,000 and $500,000 a year more to get rid of what they currently use for polystyrene," he says. "It's a lot of money that will get passed along to - well, a lot of us - health insurance carriers and patients."

O'Neil and other opponents say that, rather then pushing an outright ban, the task force should have considered a more effective approach.

"If we want to really make an environmental difference, as opposed to just making a fashion statement, what we ought to be doing is instructing EcoMaine, via the city of Portland, to start recycling polystyrene," O'Neil says, "rather than just shifting around the deck chairs."

"Yes, uh, styrofoam is theoretically recyclable, but practically, it is not," says City Councilor Ed Suslovic. Suslovic says the city's waste service, EcoMaine, is not equipped to recycle polystyrene foam, and it would be too expensive to ship it out of state. But he says the ordinance would actually lift the ban if a recycling program is ever established.

Suslovic says the proposed ordinance takes into account opponents' concerns, including a two-year time frame to implement the ban. All in all, he says, the ban has a limited scope,.

"For example, in a supermarket, if eggs or chicken come into the supermarket wrapped by the manufacturer or the packer in styrofoam, that's allowable," Suslovic says. "It's only in the store, if you go to the meat counter at your supermarket and say, 'I'd like a steak,' they would not be able to use styrofoam there."

And Suslovic says those who question the feasibility of such a ban need look no further than nearby Freeport, which banned banned polystrene foam back in 1990. "I have yet to understand why the sky is going to fall in Portland when it hasn't fallen for the last 20 years in Freeport," he says.

Once a decision is made on the proposed polstyrene foam ban, the Portland task force will tackle another issue on its list: how to reduce, or eliminate, plastic shopping bags.


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