Styrofoam, Plastic Bottle Bans Proposed

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Recycling and Solid Waste

Single-use plastic bottles. PIXABAY

CHATHAM – When a ban on single-service styrofoam packaging enacted by New York City Jan. 1 came up during a discussion with a group of friends, William Bystrom decided to research the issue. He ended up coming up with a petition to put a similar ban before voters at the May 13 annual town meeting.

“We're dealing basically with food service articles,” such as take-out containers, cups and bowls as well as packing peanuts made of styrofoam. A ban would prohibit restaurants and other food service establishments from using the containers, but would not impact building or marine uses of styrofoam, Bystrom said.

“This is just relating to packaging and single-service food items,” he said.

Town meeting voters will also weigh in on a citizen petition that would, if approve, prohibit town government from purchasing or distributing water or other beverages in plastic bottles. A regional group is coordinating placement of similar measures on town meeting warrants in other Cape towns.

A dozen major cities, including New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, along with a number of Massachusetts communities have banned the use of single-service styrofoam, Bystrom said. Nantucket passed a ban several years ago, and Falmouth adopted the prohibition last year.

Technically the material most people refer to as styrofoam is expanded polystyrene foam; “styrofoam” is a trademark name which has taken on a generic meaning. Expanded polystyrene foam is made into cups, take-out containers, plates and packing material. In its solid form, polystyrene is made into items such as plastic cutlery, CD and DVD cases and smoke detector housing.

There are several reasons to pursue a prohibition, Bystrom said. Styrofoam can't be recycled, so it goes into the solid waste stream and increases the town's costs of sending rubbish to SEMASS. Polystyrene is made from fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals and is not biodegradable, so it never breaks down. It often ends up in the environment as litter or marine debris, washing up on beaches or being consumed by animals.

Bystrom said he's received positive feedback on the petition, which has gathered more than 50 signatures, more than the 10 required to place it on the annual town meeting warrant.

“There seems to be a groundswell about this. Right across the board, it doesn't matter if you're Democrat or Republican, people of all ages get a little tired of seeing styrofoam stuff along the side of the road,” he said.

“I think it will make Chatham a nicer place,” Bystrom said of the ban.

The petition will be crafted as a general bylaw, which requires a majority vote to pass. Language is being drafted now, Bystrom said, and the petition will be filed with the town clerk well in advance of the March 23 closing of the annual town meeting warrant.

The petition to prohibit town government from buying or using plastic water bottles has already been filed and certified for placement on the warrant. Filed by resident Suzanna Nickerson, the measure would, like the styrofoam ban, be added to the town's general bylaws if approved.

The drive to institute municipal plastic bottle bans in communities across the Cape is driven by Sustainable Practices, a Brewster-based nonprofit. According to Executive Director Madhavi Venkatesan, the language for the measure was developed by a pro bono legal counsel in partnership with the nonprofit, and volunteers are collecting signatures in each Cape town to place the article on annual town meeting warrants.

The ban would not prohibit the commercial sale of plastic water bottles but would stop towns themselves from purchasing beverages that are packaged in plastic bottles.

According to Sustainable Practices' website, “The basis for the municipal ban rests on the assumption that government is established to protect the welfare of the people it governs. Plastic bottles are made from non-renewable fuels, leach chemicals into consumables, and never biodegrade. Plastic bottles impact environmental health and the health and longevity of other species, who may ingest plastic as food. Ultimately, plastic re-enters the human food chain where the adverse consequences are both known and emerging.”

Following the model of Concord, the group plans to apply for Community Preservation Act grants in individual towns to develop water stations where people can fill refillable water bottles. The group will also pursue a strategy used in Concord and in London which provide merchants with window stickers announcing “water bottles refilled here.”

Developing water station infrastructure over the coming year will allow the group to pursue a commercial ban on the sale of plastic water bottles in 2020.