Styrofoam: To Ban or Not To Ban?

Leftovers | Photo: waitscm/Flickr/Creative Commons License

If State Senator Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach has his way, one of the most common elements of dining out at a restaurant will be a thing of the past.

No, it's not having to wait in line because the restaurant doesn't take reservations, or charging a corking fee worth more than the price of the wine, or having those bathroom attendants on-hand to guilt-trip you into tipping them a dollar just because they offered up a towel after you washed your hands. (All of which should be banned.) Instead, it's the item that you're actually taking home with you from the restaurant that might be a goner: Your take-out container.

Lowenthal currently has his SB 568, a statewide ban on styrofoam, middling through the state legislature, getting ready to be voted on this week. If passed, the state would become the first to tackle the controversial environmental issue. And if past performance is any indicator, there's actually a good chance it may: 65 cities throughout Cali have already banned the material on their own, and the L.A. Unified School District recently announced they're discontinuing styrofoam trays, so smaller bits of legislation and rules-making are definitely trending in that direction.

So: Yeah! No more styrofoam! Our environment will be saved! No longer will we have to wait hundreds and hundreds of years for the material to biodegrade! Animals are now free to roam without being tempting into munching down on the styrofoam and dying due to blockage of their precious digestive tracks. This is a definite win!

Right?

Well, not so fast there, my tree-hugging friends. While those among us who consider themselves "green" are obviously definitely in favor of the bill, support is not as universal as one might expect. As Stuart Waldman over at the San Gabriel Valley Tribune points out, putting a ban on the containers will also cost the state a bunch of jobs:

With already high unemployment rates in the state, this bill will cost hundreds more Californians their jobs. It is estimated that, at minimum, California would lose nearly 1,000 jobs, $6 million in tax revenue and $335 million in wages. Dart Container, a polystyrene manufacturing company with plants in Lodi and Corona, would have to close down production. The plants run by companies like Dart only produce polystyrene food containers and a ban would put them out of business.

Many restaurants are also, somewhat surprisingly, against the ban. As the restaurant owner in this article over at The Huffington Post points out, the cost of a different takeout container might "more than double" if he's forced to use biodegradable containers. And in a business where profit margins are already extremely tough to gauge and subject to unpredictable whims, adding an extra bunch of money that needs to be spent will, no doubt, put a bunch of restaurants out of business. (Although, that said, there's an amendment that's recently been added to the bill that will exempt restaurants who have a financial hardship.)

The whole issue's a bit more complex than just "save the environment!" In fact, it's so complex, that I'm not entirely sure which way I'm swaying with this one and just stepping out to let you folks decide.

So, then: What do you think?


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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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Protecting the environment is indeed a worthy cause and something we should all strive for. Likewise, our economy must be protected from burdensome regulation and intrusion. I believe the authors of this legislation have the best intentions, but the problem is they fail to recognize the economic consequences that would take place. We must find a balance between protecting the environment and interference in the economy. And in a time where people are struggling to find work and job numbers are at record lows we simply cannot afford legislation that sacrifices jobs and money for what is likely to be negligible environmental gains.

Here is a link to another analysis:
http://www.dailynews.com/opinions/ci_21386270/food-container-ban-will-cost-state-hundreds-jobs

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I've heard all the scare tactics about polystyrene foam cups being the end-all be-all for the environment. I get that animals choking and pollution are real things that can and do occur. I just don't believe that an outright banning of a substance that has the potential to be recycled and/or used for alternative energy is a reasonable response. Now the foam ban was tabled by the legislature, right? But its going to come back and cost jobs at places like Dart Container which is an American company.

I spent some time Googling polystyrene and found some great sites such as foamfacts.com, plus wikipedia of course, that had a lot of information on styrofoam's effects on the environment. Again, I get that there are some logistics issues inherent in being able to produce something so cheap that is also disposable. I just don't think that is a reason to ban foam.