Amherst seeks to limit use of polystyrene foam containers
AMHERST — As regional landfills near the end of their life spans, the town will try to reduce its municipal waste by prohibiting Amherst restaurants from using disposal containers made from expanded polystyrene foam.
The Recycling and Refuse Management Committee has crafted a bylaw that will come before fall Town Meeting, which begins Nov. 19, that would restrict businesses, schools and other town entities from using foam and similar nonrecyclable and nonbiodegradable food containers beginning July 1.
Susan Morrello, a member of the recycling committee who serves on its foam subcommittee, said the measure is a way to limit the amount of trash generated and improve air quality, and fits the town’s zero-waste ideal.
“This is the beginning of a movement,” Morrello said. “Amherst is a town that cares about environmental issues. It’s a good place to be at the forefront.
Recycling Coordinator Susan Waite said while foams are lightweight, they are also bulky and don’t easily break down in the landfill. Putting them in an incinerator, though, causes problems with airborne toxins, she said.
The committee is working with the League of Women Voters and the Hitchcock Center for the Environment to promote the bylaw.
Cynthia Brubaker, a member of the League of Women Voters, said there is a health risk from the manufacture of foams, as polystyrene is considered a carcinogen under the National Toxicology Program at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
“They’re convenient and cheap, but they’re bad for health and environment,” Brubaker said.
Amherst would join Nantucket, Great Barrington, Seattle, Wash., and Freeport, Maine, all of which have similar bans.
The bylaw would be enforced by the health department and Department of Public Works with the potential for $100 fines after first warnings.
“We’re not looking to punish,” Morrello said. “The Board of Health likes to bring people into compliance without fining.”
Alex Krogh-Grabbe, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, said he is in favor of efforts to reduce waste. But he said there is always concern about imposing regulations.
“One of the things is to dispel the notion that Amherst is a bad place to do business,” Krogh-Grabbe said.
Morrello and Brubaker said they have visited many restaurants and determined about 40 percent are still using foam products, though most are limited, such as for take-out of soups and other hot items.
Most business owners are supportive, even if they recognize it could add to their costs, Brubaker said. Many appreciated the goals of last summer’s Taste of Amherst, which became a “zero waste” event in which all food, plates and utensils were designed to be compostable.
Still, they are cognizant that there will be added expenses. “We don’t want privately owned businesses to bear the cost,” Morrello said.
Brubaker said supporters are investigating creating a buying cooperative or consortium that could get the cost down and make it competitive with foam products.
The bylaw also won’t go into effect for several months and there is an opportunity to receive a one-year deferment as a result of undue hardship.
In 1988 a group called Foam Free Amherst proposed a ban on use of such packaging in all businesses. Before it got to Town Meeting, however, it was changed to simply being an endorsement of goals to reduce use of nonrecyclable products and educate about alternatives.
Reducing the bulk of trash associated with foam will be good for not only Amherst but other communities where the town’s trash will be taken, Morrello said. “My away is someone else’s backyard,” Morrello said.