Plastic ban: tragedy of unforeseen consequences

In November, 2012, a Brookline, MA, town meeting stumbled when trying to ban polystyrene food packaging. The effort was boosted by an informal, so-called “Green Caucus” and was strongly endorsed by Brookline PAX, a 50-year-old organization formed to promote international peace and social justice. The outcome became a tragedy of unforeseen consequences.

Advocates for Article 8 attacked all forms of styrene-containing plastics as products “harmful to human health…[and] detrimental to the environment.” However, the bylaw the 2012 town meeting enacted bans only “polystyrene food or beverage containers…used…to package or serve food or beverages if that packaging takes place on the premises….” When a container is not technically “polystyrene” or when packaging takes place outside Brookline premises, then containers made with styrene monomers are allowed.

Town Meeting, its “Green Caucus” and Brookline PAX failed to consider how food businesses and the packaging industry would react to banning polystyrene packaging–which they often misnamed “Styrofoam,” a registered U.S. trademark for an open-cell foam material not usable as food packaging. Town Meeting and the proponents did not make realistic plans for the future. Brookline now suffers because of that.

In the wake of bans in Oregon, Massachusetts, Maine and New York, research on patterns of solid waste showed that banning polystyrene-foam food containers does not reduce the burdens. In 2015, the California Water Resources Control Board found that “a ban of foam takeout items would result only in the substitution of other products that would be discarded in the same manner.”

A market on Harvard Street provides a pointed example. The managers formerly used polystyrene-foam trays for packaged food, including uncooked chicken and beef. These are mainstays, sold in large amounts. Their replacement packaging uses flat, solid plastic sheets thermally formed into trays. The plastic appears to be a copolymer that includes styrene along with other monomers but may not technically be “polystyrene.”

The managers found the replacement trays too floppy and unstable, and they double them up. Each package they sell has two solid plastic trays jammed together. That weighs several times as much as the former polystyrene-foam trays. Because it contains much more plastic resin, one of the new trays surely costs more, but customers like the market and are apparently willing to pay more.

The next least costly alternative would probably use even larger amounts of different plastics, as some restaurants are now doing. The result has been a financial and environmental tragedy–waste of natural resources, more emissions and no benefit to anyone but plastic and chemical manufacturers. One can “make a statement” if that were all that mattered. However, practical results betray environmental goals that Town Meeting, its “Green Caucus” and Brookline PAX claimed to support.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, April 28, 2018


General Bylaws, Town of Brookline, MA, 2018
See Article 8.32, Prohibition on the use of polystyrene disposable food containers.

Steven Stein, Take it from a trash researcher, banning polystyrene food containers won’t do any good, Los Angeles Times, June 28, 2017

Minority report in opposition to polystyrene product ban, City Council of Portland, ME, 2013

Minutes of a special town meeting, Town of Brookline, MA, November 13, 2012
See Eighth Article, pp.. 24-27.

Warrant Report, Fall Town Meeting, Town of Brookline, MA, November, 2012
See Article 8, starting on p. 8-1.

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