Rinaldo Del Gallo, III: Dispensing myths about Styrofoam
As momentum grows to ban Styrofoam ("polystyrene"), so does the opposition, and with it, the perpetuation of myths.
Myth No. 1: It’s illegal for Pittsfield to ban Styrofoam. Under what is known as home rule, which is in the Massachusetts Constitution, local municipalities can pass any legislation they want so long as it not proscribed by the state Constitution or is contradictory to state law.
Under home rule, local municipalities can ban Styrofoam, since no state law prevents this. Numerous municipalities in Massachusetts have passed Styrofoam bans such as Brookline, Nantucket, and Amherst. Great Barrington’s ban dates back to 1990. Polystyrene manufacturers have not challenged these bylaws in court and the Massachusetts attorney general has approved them.
Myth No. 2: Styrofoam is a harmless substance. Jim Therrien, covering the Green Commission meeting of May 19 for the Eagle, wrote that industry representatives "said there are myriad claims voiced about the materials but they’re rarely based on scientific research." Here’s some scientific research.
The National Toxicology Program, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2011 added styrene to its "reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen" list. The abstract of the study reads, "Styrene is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on limited evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in humans, sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in experimental animals, and supporting data on mechanisms of carcinogenesis."
Styrene migrates from the containers into food and beverages when heated or in contact with fatty or acidic foods. In fact, the studies of the deleterious effect of polystyrene on health and the environment are voluminous.
Myth No. 3: Styrofoam harmlessly breaks down into innocuous compounds when incinerated. Some of the Styrofoam purchased in Pitts-
field will end up in the Pittsfield municipal waste system (instead of the forest and streams where it will never break down), and Pittsfield does incinerate its garbage.
So the false argument goes, when polystyrene is burned at 800 degrees Celsius, polystyrene breaks down into harmless chemicals. But when local resident Katherine Lloyd looked into the matter and spoke before the Green Commission, she discovered that Pittsfield incinerates at 400 degrees Celsius, not 800. Moreover, even if Pittsfield did incinerate at 800 degrees Celsius, the industry claims are not true.
When polystyrene is burned at 800 to 900 degrees Celsius, the products of combustion consist of a complex mixture of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons -- scientific words for really toxic stuff. In fact, over 90 different compounds have been identified with the combustion of polystyrene. With the addition of chlorine donors such as simple table salt, "highly chlorinated polycyclic compounds" are formed -- more scientific jargon for some of the most biologically active toxins known to humans. According to the state DEP, about 50 percent of Massachusetts’ municipal solid waste is incinerated.
Myth No. 4: If you look at the entire life cycle of polystyrene, it’s less harmful to the environment than the alternatives. As the Eagle reported, the industry representatives argued "The amount of energy and water needed to produce foam containers is less." I call this the "Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" argument because it overlooks the most serious flaw in favor a "balanced" approach looking at the "entirety" of the life cycle as if the benefits could possibly outweigh the detriments.
Katherine Lloyd pointed out that many of the industry claims are based upon studies which make no such conclusions. But even if less water and energy were used, polystyrene never breaks down and is highly toxic to humans and animals -- these disadvantages infinitely outweigh whatever imagined environmental benefits.
Myth No. 5: Styrofoam can be recycled. It cannot be effectively recycled, and the vast majority of it is not. There are very few polystyrene recycle facilities in the United States. Often, long distance travel is required. The nearest facility to Pittsfield is in Leominster, which is 119 miles away.
There is little market for the recycled product. Food residue is considered a contaminant, so either it is not used or must be washed with solvents.
Myth No. 6: Polystyrene makes up only a small part of landfills. Since Styrofoam is extremely light weight, the industry always presents data in terms of weight. But Styrofoam is extremely volume consuming. The town of Amherst website states, "In a landfill environment, ten pounds (the weight of five reams of 8.5"x11" computer paper) of foam takes the space equivalent to a household refrigerator."
Myth No. 7: A ban on Styrofoam will work an economic hardship. When Amherst enacted the ban, its research team found that 70 percent of the restaurants do not use disposable Styrofoam anyhow. And while environmentally friendly alternatives are more expensive, the price comparison is a three cents Styrofoam cup versus an eight cents compostable cup -- an expense certainly worth the environmental benefit. Moreover, those that use Styrofoam do not have to pay for their environmental damage, and externalize this cost on the public.
Rinaldo Del Gallo, III is a local attorney, activist, and has filed petitions in Pittsfield to ban Styrofoam and plastic grocery bags.
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