While discussions in the state Legislature are ongoing concerning the possible ban of polystyrene food containers, the one thing that has been sorely missing is the lack of any evidence that paper and other products are better for the environment. For a whole host of reasons, which I will get into later, let me definitively say upfront that polystyrene food containers are better for the environment than the alternative containers!
If the issue is that the bans are an effort to protect the environment, then why would we legislate the use of food containers that have a bigger impact on climate change and a bigger carbon footprint? All food packaging products leave an environmental footprint, no matter what material they are made from. This includes paper products and paper products with leak-proof materials.
If the real issue attempting to be solved is littering, then the substitution of one material for another will just mean that different materials will end up being carelessly discarded. People may think that they are littering “biodegradable” food containers, but biodegradable containers do not disappear as litter or degrade in landfills. This is a great misconception. They only biodegrade in a controlled composting environment.
That is why I believe polystyrene food containers are better for the following reasons:
- Energy use: A polystyrene cup requires approximately 50% less energy to produce than a similar plastic-coated paperboard cup with a corrugated cup sleeve.
- Greenhouse gases: Studies conducted by Seattle Public Utilities showed banning polystyrene foodservice products would increase environmental impacts by doubling greenhouse gas emissions, and they take much less water to produce than the alternative products. Weighing five times less than the alternatives, polystyrene products require less transportation, thereby saving on fuels used and reducing the waste in landfill space and disposal costs.
- Reducing food waste: Polystyrene food containers deliver a better-quality product to the customer and greatly reduce the amount of food waste due to poor food quality when it arrives at your home. With nearly 40% of food in the U.S. being wasted annually, the ban on polystyrene containers will certainly increase the amount of food wasted.
- Affordability: If required to replace their polystyrene food service products, schools and public institutions in New Jersey will have to pay millions of dollars in increased costs. Studies have shown some public-school districts will be faced with hundreds of thousands of dollars in added costs at a time when their budgets are severely limited.
- Mom-and-pop stores: Studies in New York City show that for every $1 spent on polystyrene foodservice ware, restaurants and mom-and-pop stores would have to pay $2 on alternatives, which are worse for the environment.
- Public health: Polystyrene food packaging for supermarket meats and other fresh food items are an integral part of public heath protection and cannot be replaced.
- Recycling: There is a growing polystyrene recycling industry developing in New Jersey in Sussex, Union and Middlesex counties and Middletown Township. There is also a successful company in South Brunswick that utilizes the recycled polystyrene in its manufacturing of products, such as picture frames and decorative molding. Why would New Jersey want to shut down these successful programs? On the contrary, they should be expanded, and the polystyrene industry is prepared to provide funding for each county to help offset any operational costs.
If the goal is to advance environmental protection while protecting food safety, then the banning of polystyrene food containers is entirely counter to that goal. The Legislature should establish a task force to examine the environmental pros and cons of various food packaging containers and require the task force to report back its findings in one or two years — and then make an informed decision on protecting the environment.
Dennis Hart is the executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey and has over 39 years of experience working on issue in Trenton, including 29 years in various staff and senior leadership positions at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust.