hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News December 2015-January 2016


Foam-free zone expands

Pittsfield set to ban polystyrene cups, food containers


Contributing writer



Polystyrene foam cups like these will be prohibited in Pittsfield, Mass., beginning in July under a local law adopted in October. The city joins Great Barrington, Williamstown and six other Massachusetts towns in restricting the use of foam coffee cups and clamshell takeout containers.

Susan Sabino photo

There may be a little less litter in Pittsfield starting in July.
That’s when a citywide ban on polystyrene foam will go into effect. Pittsfield will join Great Barrington, Williamstown and six other Massachusetts towns in restricting the use of coffee cups and clamshell takeout containers made from the plastic, which is commonly known by the brand name Styrofoam.

Pittsfield’s law, adopted by the City Council in October, first came up for discussion in 2012 as a result of a petition circulated by local lawyer Rinaldo Del Gallo.

“I filed a single-sentence petition which blossomed into three years and a whole lot of work,” Del Gallo recalled.

Del Gallo listed a number of reasons to banish the material from Pittsfield.
“I’m sort of a science guy,” he said. “I looked at Styrofoam, and there wasn’t much of a case for it. It’s a carcinogen that never breaks down. It turns into a nasty chemical when it’s incinerated, and it fills up landfills.”

And when polystyrene is discarded outdoors, he said, “the form breaks down, but not the chemicals.

“Birds and animals eat the pieces,” Del Gallo said. “The Berkshires and Pittsfield rely on tourist money. We want the place to look nice.”

Del Gallo said he was inspired by the Boston suburb of Brookline, which recently passed a ban, and by Great Barrington, which outlawed foam food and beverage containers in 1990.
Williamstown passed its own law, prohibiting the use and sale of any kind of polystyrene food service ware and loose packaging materials, in May. The law took effect in November.


Durable to a fault?
Polystyrene, derived from petroleum, is one of the most widely used plastics. It’s usually molded into a hard form, clear or dyed, as in CD cases or plastic knives and forks.

But if air is blasted into it, polystyrene becomes a somewhat pliable foam. The foam used in food containers is about 95 percent air. The name Styrofoam, often applied incorrectly to all foamed (or “expanded”) polystyrene, is a trademark for building materials made by Dow Chemical Corp.
Polystyrene is inexpensive, lightweight, has a low melting point, and is easy to mold. It resists moisture and doesn’t decay. Polystyrene foam is a good insulator and absorbs impact, hence its use as “plastic peanuts.” It’s made into eggs cartons and meat and produce trays for grocery stores, and into all shapes of takeout containers.

But where chemical and food industries see advantages in the traits of polystyrene foam, environmentalists see drawbacks. Many believe fossil fuels, a non-renewable resource, shouldn’t be used for disposable products. And because the foam doesn’t break down in the environment, polystyrene litter stays around practically forever. Although polystyrene is considered safe by U.S. government agencies, its chemical constituent styrene is classified as a probable carcinogen.

If incinerated at about 1,000 degrees with plenty of air, polystyrene breaks down to water, carbon dioxide and not much else. But few incinerators run that hot. At lower temperatures, polystyrene degrades into soot and a variety of chemicals, some toxic. In landfills, it’s simply inert; it doesn’t give off methane like organic-based trash, but it never goes away either.


Recycling challenges
Michael Westerfield, who spoke against a ban at hearings in Pittsfield, said polystyrene foam “has a huge price advantage” over other packaging materials such as paper or cardboard. Westerfield is the corporate recycling director at Dart Container Corp., a Michigan-based company that is the world’s largest manufacturer of foam cups.

He stressed that polystyrene foam is recyclable. Foam cups and containers bear the recycling symbol with the number 6.

By comparison, he said, paper cups are often lined with wax or a plastic film for water resistance, and the lining makes them harder to recycle. Because the paper cups don’t hold heat well, coffee vendors often put an additional paper sleeve over the cup, creating more waste.

A 2006 consultant’s study, ordered by the Polystyrene Packaging Council, found that over the life of a cup, polystyrene foam requires less energy and water to manufacture, creates less air pollution, and generates less waste than paper cups.

“It’s certainly recyclable,” Westerfield said. “We’ve been doing it since the 1990s.”
But virtually no local transfer stations or waste haulers collect polystyrene foam containers for recycling.

Westerfield pointed out that polystyrene makes up only about 1 percent by weight and volume of the nation’s trash. Other materials, such as paper, metal and glass, make up much larger portions of the waste stream and have attracted more efforts to divert them from landfills and into reuse.

Because the foam is mostly air, it’s not economical to transport until it’s been compacted, which needs to be done as soon as possible after collection. Food traces on the material can be washed off, Westerfield said. The compacted foam is converted into pellets that provide the raw material for the next batch of foam.

Westerfield said the markets for recycled foam are good. It’s in demand from manufacturers of plastic picture frames, architectural trim, seedling trays, pens, insulation and other products.
But of the 85 recycling programs in the United States that accept polystyrene waste, only six are in Massachusetts – and all of those are east of Springfield. One is a commercial recycler that takes only packaging waste. The other five are town programs for residents only.

New York has two commercial recyclers of polystyrene foam, in Yonkers and on Long Island. Vermont has no facilities. The only curbside collection programs are in California.


Wider bans proposed
Westerfield said people who litter will do so regardless of the material. But polystyrene foam is so visible and so persistent that it’s an easy target for people concerned about the environment. Legislation to ban it statewide has been introduced in Massachusetts.

New York City instituted a ban in July that was overturned by a state judge in September. (Dart Container Corp. offered to buy and install sorting machines that would remove more than 90 percent of the foam from the city’s waste, and the company lined up a recycler who committed to buying the baled foam for at least five years.)

Two years ago, the Albany County Legislature passed restrictions on foam takeout containers. But because of quirks in state law, the county applied the ban only to restaurants, leaving supermarkets and convenience stores – some of the biggest users of foam containers -- exempt.
Legislators have introduced bills to restrict polystyrene foam statewide in New York, most recently in October, but none of the proposals have made it out of committee.

Some city officials in Pittsfield were concerned that a foam ban would hurt local businesses, but Del Gallo said most local eateries are already using other materials. Before public hearings on the ban, the city health department sent out letters to 320 holders of city food licenses, he said. Only three of the licensees came to speak against the proposal, including a representative of the Cumberland Farms convenience store chain.

McDonald’s has already discontinued use of foam containers, Del Gallo said.
“I was pleasantly surprised at the community support for a foam ban,” he said. “It’s an idea that made a lot of sense. The opposition was imagined.”

Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, agreed that most local businesses did not seem to view the ban as a hardship.

“There wasn’t much of any resistance from local restaurants,” Winn said. “The only real resistance was from the foam manufacturer.”

Winn testified in favor of a ban. She said her organization “does lots of river cleanups every year” and always finds foam containers in the riverside debris.

“We don’t like single-use anything,” Winn said. “People should use reusables: Bring your own travel mug and food containers to restaurants. But that may asking more of people than they’re ready for.”