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January 13, 2010 > Fremont Revisits Styrofoam Container Ban

Fremont Revisits Styrofoam Container Ban

By Steve Wyant

The City of Fremont is resurrecting a proposed ban on disposable polystyrene foam food containers used by retail food vendors and restaurants, and requiring the use of environmentally preferable food packaging. Originally conceived and presented to the City Council in 2008. Councilmember, now current Vice-Mayor Bob Wieckowski originally included plastic bags in addition to polystyrene foam containers.

Because of a number of lawsuits brought by the plastic bag industry against cities that banned them, only the polystyrene foam containers will be addressed in the current proposal, now being developed by Fremont's Environmental Services Department. "There's been no pushback from the polystyrene community" said Wieckowski. The target date to implement this new ordinance is Jan. 1, 2011.

In addition to the threat of lawsuits from the plastic bag industry, the City's other concern at the time was how to deal with the proposed compostable replacement containers which give off methane gas (a greenhouse gas) during decomposition.

In essence, Fremont had been a victim of its own recycling success in two areas. First, due to Fremont's aggressive recycling efforts, the landfill site at the end of Auto Mall Parkway has stayed opened many years past its expected close date in 2003. That facility cannot separate compostable materials from other waste and would allow greenhouse gasses to be released.

The second concern was sending "green" waste to Newby Island in Santa Clara County which has indicated that they may not be able to handle additional waste. Wieckowski said "as an environmentalist, or just as a regular citizen, we're doing too good of a job recycling our yard waste."

The local landfill will close in July, Fremont will then send its waste to the Altamont Pass Facility which has the ability to receive and sort compostable waste, then capture and use the methane gas as an energy source.

In 2008, the Fremont Chamber of Commerce did not support the ban. According to Nina Moore, Director of Government and Community Affairs for the Chamber, affected members were concerned about increased costs for replacement containers that would be passed on to consumers. The chamber indicated that they would support the proposal if the City Council would allow businesses time to deplete existing inventories and provide a list of acceptable alternatives.

If successful, Fremont would join over 30 other cities in California to ban polystyrene foam. According to Don Brown, a Business Consultant with IBB&A, Inc. and former President of APAC Bio-Paper & Plastic Corp., polystyrene foam is a major health hazard to birds and marine animals. When littered, it breaks into small pieces, finding its way into storm drains and eventually, our waterways, where it mimics food leading to choking and starvation. Another issue is decomposition. Brown stated "it will be there for thousands of years."

Among the alternatives considered as replacements are Bagasse, made of sugarcane, reed, leaves, grass, bamboo or other sustainable materials; and PLA, a Polylactate Resin made of corn starch, potato starch, yogurt and other related materials. According to Brown, an addition 8-20 cents per meal could be passed on to consumers.

While the polystyrene industry has yet to use the courts to push back against bans, it isn't silent. According to the American Chemistry Council, polystyrene foam is actually environmentally preferable; they are trying to dispel myths.

Their argument states that "All packaging leaves an environmental footprint regardless of material type. It takes energy and raw materials to produce, transport, and recover or dispose of all materials. So it is important to measure all of these impacts throughout the entire lifecycle of the product." They state that polystyrene foam offers:

A Lighter Footprint - Foam polystyrene cups weigh between two and five times less than comparable paper packaging products. This means fewer air emissions when transporting products.

An Energy Saver - A polystyrene hot beverage cup requires about 50 percent less energy to produce than a similar coated paperboard cup with a corrugated cup sleeve. Decreasing energy usage is considered one effective way to slow global warming.

A Smart Choice for Recycling - Recycled polystyrene represents an emerging market. A number of municipalities are instituting effective programs to reclaim this valuable resource. Post-consumer recycled polystyrene in some cases becomes "green building" construction products. Most single-use, coated paperboard foodservice packaging materials are not recycled because the coating and paper cannot be separated economically."

Dart Container Corporation, a major polystyrene foam container manufacturer, touts a number of successful recycling programs. They note that Los Angeles and a few other neighboring cities operate successful foam polystyrene curbside recycling programs. In Ontario, Canada, over 50% of the households have curbside and drop-off recycling programs through the Canadian Polystyrene Recycling Alliance (CPRA). They also claim to have invented a process to clean and recycle food contaminated containers which would not otherwise be recyclable (a major reason why paper-based food packaging materials are not recyclable). In the Bay Area there are drop off locations in Hayward and Union City for recycling polystyrene foam products.

In addition to its relative recyclability, Dart states that polystyrene foam is also considered to be a suitable material for Waste-to-Energy incineration processes. It delivers high BTU output, leaving only carbon dioxide, water, and trace amounts of ash as byproducts. This type of energy is used to generate steam and electricity.

While the debate between economics and environmental tradeoffs continue, one issue the polystyrene industry has yet to address is the danger to birds and marine life. Keeping us from littering polystyrene foam products in the first place may be the biggest battle.

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