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Portland council sends Styrofoam ban back to committee, industry groups attack plan

A crushed Styrofoam coffee cup lies on the ground in New York, February 15, 2013.

PORTLAND, Maine — In a move that vexed environmental advocates in attendance but provided a breath of relief to many in the local business community, the Portland City Council on Monday night voted to send a proposed citywide ban on polystyrene packaging back to a subcommittee for revision.

“This allows the grandstanding members of this council to wrap themselves in the cloak of environmental goodness without actually accomplishing anything,” said Councilor John Anton of the ban proposal. “I certainly share the concern about waste in the oceans, and polystyrene contributes to that. … but I feel like the ordinance is a mess. It is going to be an enforcement nightmare.”

The city has been on a loud campaign to clean up public places and waterways. In a series of separate actions, the council previously approved a $170 million plan to remove sewage from its stormwater pipes, cemented $100 littering fines for people who flick cigarette butts on public property and may in the future consider ways to reduce the use of plastic shopping bags here.

But faced with staunch opposition from several industry organizations, the prohibition of polystyrene failed to gain traction at the City Council level Monday night.

The latest measure targeted the material often known by the brand name Styrofoam and used for items such as coffee cups and to-go containers from restaurants.

The prohibition on polystyrene would have gone into effect in 2015 to allow local companies to use up their current stock — and with an amendment tacked on by city councilors Monday, would not have covered the materials used as packaging by wholesale distributors, such as those who process and ship seafood in the city.

The proposed ban was heralded by environmentalists as an important step in a city that last year was named one of America’s 10 “greenest” cities by the publication Travel + Leisure. City Councilor David Marshall was among those who said in the days leading into Monday’s meeting that polystyrene is still too costly to recycle, in part because local recycling and waste-to-energy plant ecomaine does not yet offer the service, and forbidding the petroleum-based material will reduce its appearance in landfills and ecologically sensitive waterways alike.

The town of Freeport approved a similar ban more than two decades ago.

While opponents of the prohibition said Monday there are no examples of individuals getting sick after eating or drinking from polystyrene food containers, City Councilor Ed Suslovic said he could not find any examples of stores or companies going out of business because they were forced to find alternatives to the material.

“I do believe Freeport is a good example. They’re a hub of commercial activity, there are a lot of restaurants in Freeport. There are chain restaurants, there are mom-and-pop restaurants, and they all seem to be doing well,” Suslovic said.

“I think a ban on polystyrene would do wonders on a small scale, but set a precedent for the future,” Jeff Davis of the Surfrider Foundation, told the council Monday. “I think a ban on polystyrene would help protect our No. 1 resource [the ocean].”

The discussion comes about 15 months after the city’s school department announced plans to discontinue use of Styrofoam lunch trays as part of a high-profile districtwide waste-reduction strategy. Portland Public Schools were using 450,000 of the one-use-only trays each year, and City Councilor Ed Suslovic said at the time the department’s decision to drop the items made it much easier for city officials to move forward with a ban throughout the rest of the municipality.

The City Council then 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 9-5 to recommend the proposed ban to the City Council’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee.

Violators of the ordinance would first receive a warning, then receive fines between $250 and $500 for additional violations.

But while the proposed ordinance was called an important strike against pollution by some in attendance, others have argued it would drive up costs on local businesses without achieving the desired environmental goals.

“It’s unnecessary, and it’s onerous on businesses,” Portland resident Steven Scharf told the council.

“What’s the goal? Reduce litter? That’s a people problem, not a material problem,” Dick Groton of the Maine Restaurant Association added.

Maine Medical Center representatives have stated the Portland hospital uses polystyrene in its cafeteria and food services, and switching to an alternative would cost the institution $400,000 a year in additional costs.

“If it’s a half million dollars for the hospital, will it be another half-million dollars for the industry? More?” posed Groton Monday night.

Joining the restaurant association in opposition to the measure Monday night were representatives of the Maine Grocers Association, International Franchise Association, Retail Association of Maine, the Convenience Store Association, Portland Community Chamber and several individual business owners.

Christopher O’Neil, consultant representing the Chamber, was among many to suggest the city more aggressively pursue a polystyrene recycling program instead of an outright ban.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman said she was swayed by the testimony of local businesspeople like Barbara Anania, who owns a group of area variety stores with her husband.

“Her concern is increased cost,” Leeman said. “That’s huge when you have a profit margin that’s minimal, and every time you have an added cost, it pushes you closer and closer to [not] making ends meet.”

Faced with the potential defeat of the ban Monday, Marshall proposed sending the ordinance back to a council committee for revision considering the business community concerns. That motion was passed by an 8-1 vote, with Councilor Kevin Donoghue dissenting.

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