Saturday February 9, 2013

I recently filed a petition before the City Council seeking that Pittsfield join Brookline in its ban on polystyrene, commonly known by the trade-name “styrofoam.” I was motivated to do so when I saw a New England Cable News piece reporting that Brookline passed a bylaw banning it by a vote of 169 in favor and 27 opposed. Brookline’s special town meeting voted to prohibit the use of disposable polystyrene for take-out food and beverages packaged in food service establishments in the town. It is not a unique idea. In 2008, Seattle also banned styrofoam as have three California communities.

In Massachusetts, Cambridge is also considering such a ban, and Amherst and Nantucket have already done so. The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, the student newspaper of UMass, states that “according to reports from Amherst Town Manager John Musante, approximately 70 percent of Amherst restaurants already refrain from using disposable foam products, preferring the alternatives.”

Unlike the paper coated with wax alternative found at environmentally responsible places such as Juice n’ Java, the Marketplace Cafe, Bagels Too, and Dottie’s, a styrofoam cup such as used at Dunkin’ Donuts never breaks down. (Dottie’s even lets you bring in your own mug, eliminating even the paper cup.)

But can’t you just burn polystyrene? Pittsfield uses a mass burn incinerator, Covanta Pittsfield. Ejnet.org, the web source for Environmental Justice Activist, debunks the claim that polystyrene when incinerated at high temperatures breaks down into “harmless” chemicals of carbon dioxide (which causes global warming) and water. It states, “When polystyrene was burned at temperatures of 800-900 Celsius (the typical range of a modern incinerator), the products of combustion consisted of a complex mixture of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from alkyl benzenes to benzo [ghi] perylene. Over 90 different compounds were identified in combustion effluents from polystyrene.” It added, “With the addition of chlorine donors as simple as table salt, it is inevitable that combustion of polystyrene in municipal solid waste incinerators will contribute to the formation of highly chlorinated polycyclic compounds like dioxins, furans, hexachlorobenzene, and chlorophenols. It is this family of compounds that are some of the most biologically active toxins known to humans.”

But styrofoam often does not make it into the trash to be incinerated anyway. Unlike paper and wax, polystyrene is highly toxic to marine and animal life. When styrofoam breaks down into small pieces, both aquatic and land animals mistake it for food.  Seemingly unlikely, this story about a new law in Brookline started in our own Berkshire town of Great Barrington. According to the Globe, “Brookline Town Meeting member Nancy Heller proposed the ban on polystyrene containers after she stopped in a Dunkin’ Donuts shop in Great Barrington and was served coffee in a paper cup.” Great Barrington banned polystyrene in 1990.
My petition went before the Pittsfield City Council Ordinance and Rules Committee which voted to table it in favor of having a public hearing at a later date. I think the council’s idea of having a public hearing on whether to ban styrofoam is an excellent idea.

We would like to hear from the public what you think of a ban on styrofoam containers, including local businesses. We would especially like to hear from environmental groups and organizations, such as the Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT), Pittsfield Green Drinks, North Adams Green Drinks, students and faculty of the environmental science program at Berkshire Community College and the Ralph Hoffmann Environmental Science and Sustainable Energy Center at BCC, staff and students of the Environmental Studies program at Mass. College of Liberal Arts, the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College, the Bard College at Simon’s Rock environmental program (located in Great Barrington), the Massachusetts Sierra Club, the Environmental League of Massachusetts, and Green Peace.

Now that it has 22 years experience in banning Styrofoam containers, we would like to hear from restaurants and food providers in Great Barrington, such as the Berkshire Coop-Market, and let us know how your experience in banning styrofoam is going. Is it working? Is it too cumbersome? Is it putting you at a competitive disadvantage? Could your bylaw be tweaked to make it better? Has the change from styrofoam containers to paper and wax been worth it? Based upon your experiences in Great Barrington, do Pittsfield businesses have anything to fear? We welcome input from all sides.

Rinaldo Del Gallo, III is a local attorney.