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On Banning Polystyrene Food Packaging

Plastic Free

by KARL GROSSMAN

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg last week announced that he would push for a ban on polystyrene food packaging. “One product that is virtually impossible to recycle and never biodegrades is Styrofoam—something that we know is environmentally destructive and that may be hazardous to our health, that is costing taxpayers money and that we can easily do without,” he said in his 2013 State of the City address.

Congratulations to the mayor for an important environmental crusade and good luck as those with vested interests attempt to block his initiative.

For what Mayor Bloomberg is doing is not new in the New York Metropolitan Area. Suffolk County on Long Island, where I live, enacted the first-in-the-nation ban on the use of polystyrene food containers back in 1988. That was 25 years ago! And what a battle it was.

Mobil and Amoco, oil companies that produce the light, heat-resistant containers, mounted huge advertising campaigns against the Suffolk measure. Polystyrene is made of oil. The Society of the Plastic Industry fought the bill. Lobbying of Suffolk legislators was intense.

McDonald’s was deeply involved. I vividly recall executives of the fast-food chain appearing before the Suffolk County Legislature asserting that without these “clamshell” containers, the Big Mac as we know it would be no more. These containers were necessary, they said, to keep the Big Mac warm.

The measure passed and was signed into law. And people have been able to live quite well in Suffolk without the banned polystyrene food containers. They were never necessary other than to profit vested interests. And the Big Mac remains alive and well in Suffolk, still warm.

To be precise, Styrofoam is the trademark name of the Dow Chemical Company for the polystyrene foam it manufactures. The correct general term for the substance is polystyrene. And Mayor Bloomberg will no doubt soon find out about this for Dow is very up-tight about the use of the word Styrofoam to identify polystyrene foam.

I wrote a book a number of years ago about chemical dangers and was asked to speak at Delta College in Midland, Michigan, the corporate headquarters of Dow. I recall a lecture organizer advising me before I took to the rostrum that there would be Dow representatives in the audience and if I used the word Styrofoam “Dow will freak out” and I and Delta College could expect letters from Dow lawyers.

The Suffolk measure—which stuck to the word polystyrene—stressed how it constitutes “a threat to the environment in the County of Suffolk by causing excessively rapid filling of landfill space or, if incinerated, by the possible introduction of toxic byproducts into the atmosphere.” http://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Suffolk-Co-NY-Ban.htm

The case against polystyrene is very strong. It takes centuries to biodegrade. Poisons are emitted if it’s incinerated. It’s a major component of plastic waste—including debris in the ocean. Polystyrene is lethal to any bird or sea creature that swallows a significant quantity. Also, chemicals in polystyrene migrate from packaging into food and there are health concerns for people. Moreover, as the Suffolk law stresses—there are “available substitutes.”

The current program in the TV series I have hosted for 22 years, Enviro Close-Up, is “Plastic Free with Beth Terry.” Enviro Close-Up is syndicated by Free Speech TV on 200 cable systems across the U.S., on the satellite TV networks, DirecTV and Dish, and on the Internet. Ms. Terry is the author of “Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.”

She tells on the program of the “epiphany” which caused her to become a crusader against plastics—learning about the death of “huge numbers” of birds caused by the North Pacific Gyre, also known as “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” This is a gigantic deposit of plastic debris—a lot of it polystyrene—floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. “Some people say it’s the size of the United States,” says Ms. Terry.

The Enviro Close-Up features graphic video of this toxic situation. And it provides Ms. Terry’s advice about how we can live with a minimum of plastic. You can view the program online.

Since the Suffolk ban was enacted, cities and other counties and municipalities all over the United States especially in California—as well as Toronto, Canada and several cities overseas including Paris, France—have followed up with similar bans on polystyrene food packaging.

It would be great if New York City joins in—but that will require Mayor Bloomberg  surviving the gauntlet which now will be laid down by polystyrene promoters.

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.