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Avoid simplistic choices on environmental good

To the editor:

I agree that we should try to promote a green economy and should not support efforts producing products that are damaging to the environment. The question is whether Styrofoam is one of these.

In a recent letter about the League of Women Voters’ support for a Styrofoam ban, the statement is made that styrene “is the main ingredient in expanded polystyrene.” This is not so.

Polystyrene is the main ingredient and the styrene is used to make it. The amount of residual styrene is small and efforts are made to reduce it. It would be reasonable to require upper limits on the amount that remains.

While I agree that polystyrene is not biodegradable, it is not necessarily true that it is not practical to recycle it. Whether it is or not depends on the infrastructure. It is very lightweight which means that the value per unit volume is relatively low, adding to the cost of collecting and transporting the discarded Styrofoam. Doing so can be economical if a local and large volume source is available. For example, one of our fast-food chains used Styrofoam for its “clamshells” to deliver hamburgers. Public pressure motivated them to change to cardboard.

Prior to the change, a recycling company was collecting the discarded Styrofoam clamshells from franchises at no cost, where appreciable quantities were available. They were able to transport them to a nearby recycling facility and convert them to plastic trays that the could profitably sell back to the franchise. They became bankrupt when the change to cardboard occurred.

I inquired to see why this was done, and it was admitted that the recycling could be done economically, but the decision was forced by public pressure. One might ask whether the reasoning leading to such pressure was sensible.

One must also compare the procedure with that of alternatives. The cardboard substitute was inferior to Styrofoam for insulation, leading to greater energy needs to maintain hamburger temperature. It was also necessary to treat the cardboard to make it greaseproof which interfered with its recycling. Thus, one must ask whether the justification for the change was proper and represented an environmental gain if all of these aspects are considered. One really needs a “cradle-to-grave” kind of analysis to know.

My point is that many wishing to improve the environment make simplistic choices and these should be evaluated based on logical rather than emotional considerations. Similar consideration may apply to other decisions such as that of “plastic or paper ” for shopping bags, or “plastic or glass” for milk jugs. An analysis requires consideration of all factors, including the product’s performance, transportation cost, and a comparison of recyclability with alternatives.

Richard S. Stein


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