December 12, 2019
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Foam food containers are about to become a ‘thing of the past’ in Portland

PORTLAND, Maine — While shoppers in Portland can still acquire single-use plastic and paper bags if they want to pay for them after the city’s new litter-reduction ordinances take effect on April 15, the same can’t be said about polystyrene containers.

“The traditional foam coffee cups are going to be a thing of the past in Portland come April 15,” said Troy Moon, Portland’s environmental programs manager. “No more foam coffee cups, no more foam take-home trays, no more foam clamshell [containers].”

Moon said the city informally polled restaurateurs to determine what effect the polystyrene ban would have.

“As far as we could tell, more than half of Portland restaurants had already done away with foam containers,” he said.

“There’s a slightly different outlook on it depending on whether you’re talking to a local mom-and-pop operation or to a chain,” said Christopher O’Neil, government liaison for the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the ban. “In many respects, the chains have found this to be more systemically traumatic than the gentleman who has one pizza store. Reason being, the national chain has 500 stores that all use the same cups, and now they have a store in Portland that has to use a different cup.

“Is it the end of the world for them? No. But those people build their business model on replication and cost efficiency,” he said. “Do they view that kind of inconsistency as a mere nuisance? Or a severe pain in the neck? You’d have to ask them.”

According to a study commissioned by the American Chemistry Council, which has lobbied against polystyrene bans and plastic bag fees elsewhere, alternatives to polystyrene containers are on average 94 percent more costly to the businesses distributing them.

So a coffee shop currently spending $1 for each polystyrene cup it gives away will soon have to spend an average of $1.94 per disposable cup it gives away, according to that analysis.

But like grocers taking on the bag fees, local franchise owners are mostly concerned about how the measure will affect customers, said Jim Coen, a board member and former executive director of the Portland-based Maine Franchise Owners Association.

Coen said many coffee shops, fast food chains and restaurants use polystyrene because they’ve found customers prefer it, regardless of the cost implications.

“The best takeout containers — that consumers like the best — are Styrofoam, because they insulate the food, and they’re not hot to the touch,” he said. “So they provide the best customer experience — the problem is, they’re not easy to recycle.”

Coen also said the ban may not be as effective as city leaders hope from an environmental perspective. He said any paper alternatives to polystyrene must have a special plastic lining to prevent hot foods or liquids from penetrating through the material.

That plastic lining renders the paper products nonbiodegradable as well, he said. The major difference is that customers often use two or three of them to get the insulating qualities of just one polystyrene cup or container — and avoid burning their hands.

“Whether it’s Styrofoam or paper, it has to be plastic lined, or the hot beverage is going to go through the paper,” Coen said.

Coen and Shelley Doak, executive director of the Maine Grocers & Food Producers Association, both said the city’s concerns about litter may have been better handled with stricter enforcement of litter laws than new regulations on particular items or materials, as shoppers prone to throwing trash onto the street corners will now just be throwing different kinds of trash — but trash just the same.

Unlike with the bag fees, one doesn’t have to look far to see another example of a municipal polystyrene ban. The town of Freeport, a shopping destination just 20 minutes up the highway from Portland, implemented such a ban 25 years ago.

“It works in Freeport — why wouldn’t it work anywhere else?” posed Glen Brand, director of the Sierra Club Maine.

Anna Brown was among the proponents of the ban as a young girl about age 10 when Freeport took up the issue. Now working for the Rockefeller Foundation on climate change initiatives in Bangkok, Brown recalled that she and her classmates found an abundance of polystyrene litter along the coastline at the time.

“One argument [against the ban at the time] focused on the idea that while paper packaging is supposedly biodegradable, when [it’s] in a landfill, it does not decompose — and can weigh more than polystyrene,” Brown said. “This is true — that in a landfill where there is no oxygen, even biodegradable materials do not necessarily break down. However, one of the problems with polystyrene foam, particularly in a coastal town like Freeport, is that the waste doesn’t necessarily find its way to the landfill in the first place.”

Brown said that even if people still litter their coffee cups or food containers, that litter is now less harmful to fish and other coastal creatures because of the ban.

“When polystyrene foam ends up in the ocean, marine life sometimes mistake it for food, which can have devastating consequences,” she said. “While I’m not sure if the total volume of waste dropped — which would have required an intervention to shift the behavior of consumers to ensure that trash ends up in the waste bins — the type of waste would have presented lower levels of complications in terms of falsely filling up the stomachs of marine species.”

According to research cited in a San Jose State University report, San Francisco found a 41 percent reduction in polystyrene litter over the three years after it implemented a ban on the material in 2007.



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