PITTSFIELD -- The city's Green Commission heard from both sides this week in the debate over proposed bans on polystyrene food containers and plastic bags.
Representatives from the industry and area residents who favor the initiatives made their cases to commissioners, who had the proposals referred to them for a recommendation by the City Council's Ordinance and Rules Committee.
Katherine Lloyd said she strongly supports bans on both foam containers and plastic shopping bags. A growing number of communities, such as Great Barrington, Amherst and Brookline, have adopted similar bans, she said, adding, "There is a great deal of information on this, and others are doing it. This logical and doable; we are not creating the wheel."
Lloyd and other proponents of a ban cited scientific studies that they said conclude or suggest a link between exposure to plastic materials and diseases like cancer. Polystyrene in the waste stream also does not break down like paper or other containers, she said, and polystyrene litter is significant problem.
In addition, she said, incinerating polystyrene wastes at lower-end incinerator temperatures, which she said is the case at the Covanta facility in Pittsfield, releases harmful compounds into the atmosphere.
Paul Poe, a representative of the Dart Container Corp., and Stephen Rosario, representing the chemical industry in the region, said there are myriad claims voiced about the materials but they're rarely based on scientific research.
They cited environmental advantages to using polystyrene food or drink containers over such materials as paper. The amount of energy and water needed to produce foam containers is less, they said, and paper cups are not recyclable.
The industry representatives advocated using foam containers along with an aggressive recycling program as best for the ecosystem. "It has a lower carbon footprint," said Poe.
Only about 1 percent of wastes in landfills is made up of plastic foam material, Poe said, and he asserted that there is no scientifically proven case of the materials having caused disease.
Styrene also is naturally occurring in the atmosphere, they said, including in cinnamon and coffee.
Charles Lake, of Cairo, N.Y., said he worked with polystyrene at a warehouse in Brattleboro, Vt., and became chronically ill from the exposure. He said he has suffered "migrane-induced strokes" and is disabled.
Lake, who said he posted information about his experience on his website, comfortncolor.com, said he is lobbying federal lawmakers on legislation concerning polystyrene.
Rinaldo Del Gallo, who first proposed the bans to the City Council, termed polystyrene "really, really bad stuff," which migrates into foods it comes into contact with and is "pervasive" in marine environments and elsewhere in the environment.
The materials break apart and are consumed by birds and marine life, and when it is incinerated as waste it creates "a bloody mess" in the environment, he said.
Del Gallo countered the argument of the industry representatives that recycling the plastics, combined with the lower cost per container for foam versus paper or other materials, either creates or saves jobs. He asserted that "going green also would create jobs."
Poe and Rosario also cited the difficulty some communities have had in deciding exactly which foam containers should be banned as a factor greatly lessening the overall effect of a ban.
Meat packaging in supermarkets and containers for packaged foods like instant soups and other forms of polystyrene often have been given exemptions to such bans, they said.
Del Gallo said he purposely did not submit a specific ordinance to create a ban, preferring to have city officials work out the details.
Commission Chairman Joseph LaRoche said he still has questions about the proposal and how a ban would work in a practical sense. The board will take up the issue at its next monthly meeting, he said.
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