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Styrofoam Controversy: Restaurants Still Doing The ‘Styro Gyra’

June 6th, 2008

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By Shermakaye Bass

You’ve read the reports in the media – or heard them on the nightly news – that a growing number of American cities are banning the use of Styrofoam, a.k.a. polystyrene foam, in restaurants and food services, due to health and environmental concerns.

Some observers say it isn’t fair or necessary to institute government-imposed restrictions on a free-market economy, but the anti-Styrofoam forces say it is necessary because the non-biodegradable, air-puffed plastic hangs around landfills (and parks and waterways) for hundreds of years, unlike more earth-friendly counterparts like cups and plates made of paper products. They also claim that corporations won’t concern themselves with this environmental issue unless pushed to do so.

It’s a complicated row, this Styrofoam business and, with no real national policy or federal legislation, it’s gotten more heated on both sides. The obvious target in the debate is the restaurant and food-service industry, whose greener consumers have raised a fuss over Styrofoam in progressive urban areas like San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; and Suffolk County on Long Island.

But many purveyors of Styro-insulated hot coffee, steamy take-out food and loudly fizzing fountain cokes (only Styrofoam can give it that particular fizz, fans claim) insist that the benefits of Styrofoam outweigh the negatives. It keeps things hot. It keeps things cold. There is simply no substitute for it, plastics insiders say.

Which is why some major fast-food chains (Sonic and Chick-Fil-A , for example) are still packing it up in polystyrene. Of those two biggies, both corporations defend their stances but also promise that they are reviewing all options.

“Sonic’s customers have traditionally preferred foam or polystyrene over other types of cups,” a spokesperson said by email. “As it stands today, only two main options exist for disposable cups that are used extensively in the fast-food industry: polystyrene foam or plastic-coated paper. While polystyrene foam accounts for less than 1% of all landfill contents, that fact doesn’t lessen consumers’ and businesses’ interest in seeking alternatives…Additionally, as societies learn more about the impact of human life on the environment, we, as a business, seek to collaborate with our supply partners to develop sustainable ways of delivering best-in-class soft drinks in a scalable and affordable way…Those conversations have begun.”

Chick-Fil-A executives commented that they are “currently working on a ‘Going Green’ initiative.” The spokesperson, Brenda Green (no joke), didn’t elaborate.

Perhaps it’s best to examine the larger picture anyway, explore what others in food service say about the general whys and why nots of Styrofoam. Maybe it should be called the Styro gyra dance – because the opinions vary so widely from one camp to the other. The American Chemistry Council does an impressive side-stepping waltz when discussing the material, trying to spin it from a different perspective.

According to an ACC affiliate, there is no real evidence that Styrofoam adds more to “the litter problem.”

In fact, Mike Levy, director of the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group, a division of ACC, says there is a mis-perception of Styrofoam’s impact on the environment and how it affects the country’s landfills. He believes that because of this, the recent bans have been misguided.

“The cities that are interested in banning or have banned it, have done so under the idea that it’s going to solve a litter problem or reduce green-house gases, and in all cases that hasn’t been shown. In one city where that happened (a ban), Portland Oregon, they did studies later, and what they found was that not only did it not cut back on litter, but, because it’s so much lighter than other waste products, that it takes up less space in landfills.”

Levy says that if the substitute were to be paper board or paper with an oil-based coating on it, that wouldn’t be any better for the “litter problem.”

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