Environment: be careful what you ask for

Brookline’s incautious foray into environmental regulation has produced a small-scale disaster–a reminder to “be careful what you ask for.” One thesis held containers made from closed-cell, expanded polystyrene foam to be the Devil’s work. They were banned from local foodservice businesses. These common, lightweight products are sometimes misidentified as Styrofoam, a Dow Chemical trademark for slabs of extruded polystyrene foam.

Here is what happened at our neighborhood favorite: Dok Bua–a popular, highly regarded Thai restaurant on Harvard St. that does a busy trade in take-out as well as table service. Before the disaster, a take-out usually included five containers: a Dart 80HT3 hinged-lid polystyrene foam box for the main dish, a soup cup and three portion containers. The last four were unaffected by Brookline’s hasty ban and are still provided.

Dart is a well known U.S. manufacturer of foodservice packaging, with headquarters in Michigan and several U.S. plants. An 80HT3 container provides lightweight, disposable packaging with good thermal insulation. It measures 8 x 7-1/2 x 2-1/4 in and weighs 14 g, equal to 0.5 oz. Because Brookline has never provided any practical recycling for such containers, we take them once or twice a year to a privately run recycling program, when we can combine the errand with another trip nearby.

For take-out, Dok Bua now provides a Pactiv VERSAtainer NC723 round container and lid, 7-1/4 in diameter x 2-1/4 in high. It weighs 40-1/2 g, equal to 1.4 oz, and is made of virgin, solid polypropylene. These sturdy containers are easy to clean, dishwasher-proof and handy for leftovers. We’re not recycling them; we reuse them. However, we have seen plenty of the previous as well as the current Dok Bua take-out containers tossed in both refuse and recycling bins. Either way, their most likely fates are to be burned at an incinerator in Rochester. Recycling symbols on the Pactiv items are so small they are almost sure to be missed.

The small-scale disaster that Brookline’s hasty and foolish ban produced is wasting about an extra 0.9 oz of virgin polymer resin for each take-out serving from Dok Bua. We don’t see any evidence that many of our neighbors are taking up an opportunity for reuse. The container cost for Dok Bua has at least tripled. Any competent analysis would very likely find the overall effect of Brookline’s ban on polystyrene foam, as worked through by Dok Bua, to be substantially more–not less–environmental damage. Hundreds of pounds a year in extra plastics are being used for no benefit whatever–instead, for overall harm. It turned out to be a lose-lose proposition.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, June 2, 2014

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