PORTLAND, Maine — The Portland City Council is scheduled on Monday to consider a proposed citywide ban on expanded polystyrene packaging, such as the white foam coffee cup common in convenience stores and the clamshell containers restaurants use for take-out orders.
Monday night’s meeting will also be an opportunity for a public hearing on the measure.
Proponents of a ban on polystyrene containers, commonly known by the brand name Styrofoam, argue that the items are nonbiodegradable and end up as litter in city parks, on streets and in Casco Bay.
Opponents of the proposal argue that a citywide ban is bad policy, does not solve the problems cited as reasons for the ban and that the effects of such a ban on businesses were not thoroughly vetted.
The proposed ban, the idea for which was first floated last year by City Councilor Ed Suslovic, would prohibit the retail use of polystyrene food packaging within the city and would prohibit the city and its vendors from using the material. It would not affect prepackaged foods and businesses that are not selling directly to the public, such as companies that use it to ship seafood.
The proposed law would take effect in 2015 to give businesses time to exhaust their current supply.
The City Council last summer created the Green Packaging Working Group to explore the issue of polystyrene packaging and recommend a solution to the City Council. The task force met for the first time in March 2013, and ultimately in May voted 9-6 to recommend the proposed ban to the City Council’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee.
Chris O’Neil, a lobbyist who works for the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, believes the process was flawed from the beginning.
“The task force really didn’t do what task forces normally do, which is identify problems, identify potential solutions, discuss them and recommend the best solution,” O’Neil said. “What they did is come in with a solution, which was to ban polystyrene, and they didn’t really even have a deliberative, introspective, inquisitive process like task forces should.”
Dick Grotton, CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association, was a member of the task force and shares O’Neil’s frustration.
“It wasn’t a process of looking at the fiscal impact of the decision, looking at what are the alternatives of polystyrene packaging and whether those alternatives are more environmentally friendly or actually less environmentally friendly,” he said. “It was all about polystyrene being a dirty word.”
O’Neil said a ban doesn’t solve the problems, such as litter, cited by its proponents, and that the task force didn’t conduct a thorough economic impact study to determine how such a ban would affect Portland’s restaurants and food-service businesses.
Regardless of what type of product is being discussed, O’Neil thinks a citywide ban is just bad policy.
“Banning anything at a municipal level makes Portland an outlier in the regulatory scheme of things,” O’Neil said. “On principle, it’s a very high bar to get us to go along with banning anything, short of it being a public hazard or threat.”
Instead of a ban, O’Neil argues that the council should explore the implementation of a polystyrene recycling program. Contrary to popular belief, polystyrene foam packaging is recyclable, he said.
“It comes down to this,” O’Neil said. “Are we concerned about adopting an ordinance with a true environmental benefit, or are we concerned about making a fashion statement?”
David Marshall, the city councilor who chairs the Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee, plans to vote in favor of the ban.
“It’s not decomposable. It’s not cost-effective to recycle it. So I feel as though it’s appropriate to take this action,” Marshall told the Bangor Daily News on Friday. “We have a lot of plastic products that end up in our waterways and sewer systems from litter, and our oceans are being negatively affected by nonbiodegradable plastics. Those are some of the key reasons I’m supporting the measure.”
Marshall said recycling polystyrene would be cost prohibitive at this point because Ecomaine, the regional waste management company that handles Portland’s trash and recycling, doesn’t have the proper facility for such a program, and that shipping polystyrene to a facility outside the region would be too expensive. He added, however, that the ordinance does include a sentence that would automatically repeal the ban if the city adopted an “effective” polystyrene recycling program.
As for the effect on businesses, O’Neil and Grotton argue that it will raise costs that will ultimately be passed on to consumers.
Danny Bouzianis, a task force member who owns several local Dunkin’ Donuts franchises in the city, was not available on Friday for comment, but in March he told The Forecaster that switching to only paper cups in his stores rather than polystyrene ones would increase costs by $10,000 a year.
It’s not just restaurants and coffee shops that will be affected. Switching to a polystyrene alternative in its cafeteria and for its food services will cost Maine Medical Center $400,000 a year in additional costs, according to Matt Paul, the hospital’s’ director of communications. The hospital is providing the numbers as part of the debate, but has not publicly come out for or against the ban, Paul said.
There has also been concern about ambiguity in the language that would mean the ban applies to wholesale seafood businesses.
“The intent of the ordinance has always been to apply to retail food sale, however, there is some ambiguity in the language that could lead someone to believe that the proposal would also apply to wholesale food sales,” Nicole Clegg, the city’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Corporation counsel is working on an amendment to make it clear that wholesale is exempt and that amendment will be presented Monday night.”
Marshall believes the effect a polystyrene ban would have on businesses is being overblown. Based on his own market research, Marshall said he found biodegradable nonpolystyrene packaging, whether the clamshell sandwich holders or coffee cups, that can be purchased for the same price as, or lower than, polystyrene packaging.
He admits wholesale prices might look different, but his own research leads him to believe that a ban will not significantly raise costs on businesses. If it would, he believes the council would have seen more concerned business owners at its meetings. As it is, Marshall said the only people speaking out against the measure are a few vocal business owners, including Bouzianis, and a large number of professional lobbyists — including ones for the chemical industry flown in from far away as Ohio and Michigan.
“There are a lot of options on the market and consumers are already demanding more environmentally friendly packaging,” Marshall said. “If companies aren’t already moving toward compostable products, they’re missing a big opportunity in the marketplace.”
Marshall is confident a vote will be held on Monday, and that it will be successful.
“I think it’s going to pass and I don’t think the sky is going to fall as a result,” he said.