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The case for banning Styrofoam containers

When you throw a disposable coffee cup away, where does it go?

If you live in Amherst, it might end up in the South Hadley landfill, where all waste brought to the transfer station is taken. However, its final resting place could also be 250 miles away at the 57-acre Seneca Meadows Landfill in New York, where at least one private hauler takes Amherst waste.

This information, combined with the fact that western Massachusetts landfills are reaching capacity and closing in the near future, has motivated Amherst’s Recycling and Refuse Management Committee to take measures to reduce our waste. Eliminating expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam disposable containers (commonly referred to as Styrofoam™) is first on the agenda. Together with the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and the League of Women Voters of Amherst, the committee has proposed a town-wide ban of EPS foam in food establishments and town facilities. The ban is on Amherst’s Fall Town Meeting warrant (Article 9).

Styrofoam™ was developed for the construction industry by Dupont® for its insulating properties. It is moderately strong, lightweight, waterproof and inexpensive to produce. However it is also extremely bulky and takes up far more space in a landfill than its weight indicates (it contains up to 90 percent air). The industry argues that EPS makes up a very small percentage of municipal solid waste, but those calculations are based on weight, not volume. What’s more, while most waste in a landfill compresses and settles over time, EPS does not.

Waste to energy incineration is another disposal alternative. Incineration not only produces energy, but greatly reduces the residual solid waste volume. However, burning EPS is not a wise choice either. Styrene, an ingredient in EPS, is a toxic substance and the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services has recently added it to its list of carcinogens. Recycling at first appears plausible, and some neighboring communities collect EPS, but they do so at a financial and environmental cost; they pay over $10 per cubic yard to have it trucked 80 miles to North Smithfield, R.I. This is not practical on a large scale.

Communities across the nation are working to eliminate EPS food containers: Seattle, Portland and 50 California communities (including Santa Monica, Berkeley and Oakland) among them. Locally, Great Barrington and Nantucket have bans and one is being pursued in Brookline.

How difficult might this change be for Amherst? We are more than halfway there, as 70 percent of Amherst restaurants already elect to avoid EPS, and many of the remaining 30 percent use EPS in a limited fashion. Amherst public schools, Amherst College, Hampshire College and University of Massachusetts dining services no longer use EPS. The cost of EPS alternatives has decreased significantly and prices will continue to drop as products gain popularity. But cost differentials do exist, and if Amherst chooses to support this measure, residents must be willing to pay a few cents extra for an alternative container. To reduce costs, the coalition is exploring the formation of a cooperative buying program, where Amherst businesses could pool purchases to qualify for quantity discounts.

The proposed bylaw would take effect in July 2013, allowing more than six months to deplete EPS supplies and find suitable alternatives. If a restaurant utilized the economic hardship waiver, it would have 18 months to transition to alternative products.

The Recycling and Refuse Management Committee is determined to pursue initiatives that will reduce the amount of waste we produce. It is committed to increasing recycling rates, facilitating composting, and shifting disposal responsibility of bulky and hazardous products from municipalities to product manufacturers (who have the power to reengineer packaging and design more sustainable alternatives).

Using readily recycled or compostable material instead of bulky and toxic EPS foam containers makes sense for Amherst. We need to focus on reducing waste at the source so that we can reduce the amount that is transported. If you endorse this ban, please call your Town Meeting representative to voice your support.

Susan Morrello is a member of the Amherst Recycling and Refuse Management Committee, Colleen Kelley is the education director at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and Susan Waite is Amherst’s recycling coordinator.

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