Haste makes waste, even in Brookline

Brookline’s town meeting acted too hastily in banning expanded polystyrene foam last year. Often mistaken for Dow Chemical’s trademarked Styrofoam–slabs of extruded foam–the firm but featherweight molded foam is widely used for food containers in restaurants and grocery stores.

Brookline activists–none with sustained work experience as food or polymer chemists–tried to finger polystyrene as a specially dangerous material. In fact, nearly all plastics contain additives and monomers that could be hazardous in their raw forms and in large quantities. However, evidence against any one of the hundreds of commercial plastics is weak–nothing like the overwhelming evidence against tobacco.

Polystyrene happens to be a fairly valuable material for recycling, yet in 40 years of recycling programs the town has never given it serious attention. Recycled polystyrene is a prime component of some high-volume products, including supposedly “green” bamboo composite floor coverings. Industrial demand often exceeds supply.

As an intrepid reporter for the Brookline TAB recently discovered, potential alternatives to polystyrene foam food containers are much more expensive. Most use more, not less, in virgin materials and manufacturing energy. Many of them also release as much or more in life-cycle air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The key problem with polystyrene foam is the same as its key virtue: the combination of firmness with low density. That makes it a good insulator and shock absorber but also makes it bulky to handle at curbside pickup, prone to blow around and hard to separate for recycling instead of burning.

The town’s year-round “solution” to recycling has been voluntary dropoff at the worst possible location, far from our main population centers. Driving there with a whole carload of foam would consume more petroleum than it could save.

A real solution for recycling would be a hydraulic foam compressor, taken around occasionally to dropoff bins located within walking distances of those population centers. The town could also adopt a similar approach in place of its other hasty ban: polyethylene film, also useful as a recycled material.

Living near the B.U. West section of Commonwealth Ave., we’re not much affected by Brookline’s hasty bans. We often visit markets and restaurants in Allston and Watertown. We have long avoided extra packaging of any kind but still bring home some amounts of polystyrene foam and polyethylene film, which we continue to recycle via privately managed programs.

When Brookline joined Boston, Cambridge and other communities in adopting so-called “single-bin recycling,” the town effectively abandoned recycling in favor of burning most waste tonnage other than glass and metal. That’s because mixed materials end up badly soiled and damaged, destroying value. These communities “recycle” more in name than in fact. Would-be “environmentalists” rarely know where contents of their “recycle” bins go.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, April 5, 2014

Burning public money for dirty energy, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, 2011

Jon Chesto, Gov. Patrick eases ban on Massachusetts incinerators, Boston Business Journal, 2013

Fred Bever, Environmentalists slam Massachusetts solid waste plan, WBUR (Boston, MA), 2013

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