Suffolk County, NY, on March 29 passed a law banning the use of plastic grocery bags and other plastic food containers starting in July, 1989. The law forbids the use of polystyrene foam (PS foam) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) for food packaging in restaurants, bars, delis, roadside stands, grocery stores, and other retail food establishments. PS foam is used in coffee cups, egg cartons and meat trays. PVC film is used as food wrap and for grocery bags.
Suffolk's is the most far-reaching law of its kind in the nation. In 1987 the city of Berkeley, CA, outlawed PS foams containing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the Freon-type gases that are destroying the earth's ozone shield in the upper atmosphere (see HWN #60 and #70). According to the NEW YORK TIMES (4/30/88, p. 1), dozens of similar laws to ban plastics are pending in cities, counties and states around the nation. The Suffolk law is expected to build pressure for passage of these other laws.
The Suffolk law does not affect goods shipped into Suffolk county already wrapped in plastic, such as prepackaged meats.
The law was vigorously opposed by Mobil Corporation and Amoco Corporation, both major producers of plastic bags and foam food containers. In ads in major magazines in February, 1988, Amoco called "foam fast food containers the scapegoat, not the problem." (For example, see TIME magazine 2/29/88, p. 30.) In those ads, Mobil says the solution to the solid waste crisis is "more recycling, siting of new landfills, and construction of new incinerators."
The Mobil ads pretend to compare the advantages of PS foam to paper, and they conclude PS foam is better, or at least no worse. However, Mobil omits most of the relevant facts about PS foams. Diane de Coninck, a student at University of Vermont, spent the last year studying the environmental effects of PS foam vs. paper, so a good deal is known about the relative hazards of these products. Judged against facts presented by Ms. de Coninck, the Suffolk County law is definitely a step in the right direction, though not a large enough step.
Polystyrene foam can be made two ways: with CFCs (which deplete the earth's ozone shield 10 miles or higher in the sky) or with hydrocarbons (n-pentane, isopentane, and n-butane). PS foam food packaging made with CFCs in the U.S. released 3.9 tons of CFCs in 1985 (nonfood-related polystyrenes released an additional 3.9 tons).
The use of hydrocarbons in PS foam manufacture releases the hydrocarbons into the air at ground level; there, combined with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight, they form ozone --a serious air pollutant at ground level. According to the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) more than 100 million Americans currently live in areas that fail to meet air quality standards for ozone. California, the Texas Gulf Coast, the Chicago-Milwaukee area, and the Northeastern U.S. all have "serious ozone air quality problems," according to EPA. Ozone is definitely a dangerous pollutant. The EPA says:
"Healthy individuals who are exercising while ozone levels are at or only slightly above the standard can experience reduced functioning of the lungs, leading to chest pain, coughing, wheezing, and pulmonary congestion. In animal studies, long-term exposure to high levels of ozone has produced permanent structural damage to animal lungs while both short and long term exposure has been found to decrease the animal's capability to fight infection." In other words, prolonged exposure to atmospheric ozone above legal limits might be expected to damage the immune system. In its ads, Mobil does not mention this side effect of foam coffee cups.
Furthermore, PS foam is made from petroleum. Are coffee cups the highest and best use of this dwindling resource? Fourfifths (80%) of all the oil discovered in North America has already been used up. Current proven reserves in the U.S. total 36 billion barrels--enough to supply U.S. needs for only eight years at current rates of consumption. This is one reason the U.S. is so heavily involved in the Middle East--to keep Mobil supplied with raw material for coffee cups. There were 54 billion plastic food service products sold in the U.S. in 1986.
The aim of the Suffolk law is to force a switch to paper products instead of plastic. Paper products use less energy in manufacture, they pollute less, they are biodegradable, and they are made from a renewable resource (cellulose). On this basis, paper is clearly a better choice. Moreover, since some fast food companies already use paper, everyone knows paper can do the job.
However, as Ms. de Coninck's report shows, the vast majority of paper used in the food industry is virgin paper, not recycled. Some dry foods (e.g., breakfast cereals) are packaged in recycled paper, but most food is not. Recycled paper uses less energy in manufacture, creates less pollution, and employs more workers.
However, even recycled paper is second best. Ms. de Coninck reminds us that the best food service material is still china. We should discourage disposable food service products wherever possible. Where china won't do (e.g., when food is to be taken out) we should use recycled paper. Lastly, we should think of what's needed vs. what's cute. As Ms. de Coninck points out, in England fish and chips are served in tissue paper wrapped in newspaper. Who needs Ronald McDonald's colorful face?
In response to the Suffolk law, a spokesperson for the Society of the Plastic Industry said plastic products were being singled out as scapegoats by local governments desperate to solve the solid waste crisis. The Society is considering a legal challenge to the Suffolk law.
For its part, Suffolk (like all other jurisdictions on Long Island) is being forced to close all landfills by 1990 because the NY Department of Environmental Conservation has concluded there is no way to prevent landfills from polluting groundwater. Incineration is being urged as an alternative, but residents fear air pollution.
Patrick G. Halpin, the Suffolk county executive who signed the new law April 30, said it should "send a clear message to the plastics industry that the time is now to begin an aggressive and comprehensive recycling program."
The Suffolk law can be obtained from County Clerk, Suffolk County
Administration Building, Riverhead, NY 01901; phone (516)
360-5423. Diane de Coninck's excellent report, "A POLICY ANALYSIS
OF FAST FOOD PACKAGING", (117 pgs) is available for $10 from
Environmental Program, University of Vermont, 153 South Prospect
St., Burlington, VT 05437.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: polystyrene; food; polyvinyl chloride; ny; suffolk county; legislation; cfcs; mobil corp.; amoco corp.; recycling; incineration; diane de coninck; hydrocarbons; air pollution; epa; air quality; ozone; plastics; groundwater; patrick halpin;