Be careful what you bite into. That synthetic clamshell could be toxic.

Be careful what you bite into. That synthetic clamshell could be toxic.

By Izak Shapiro

On April 22, 2013, in the Aldermanic Chambers room of the Somerville City Hall, The Board of Aldermen held a public hearing on the movement to ban the use of polystyrene – or Styrofoam – by Somerville restaurants and food and drink take-out venues such as Dunkin Donuts. Previously in the State of Massachusetts, the cities of Amherst and Brookline banned such use of polystyrene due to the consequences of the material on both the human body and on the environment as a whole.

A ban on Styrofoam, however, could have severely negative economic consequences on both the multitude of Somerville food take-out venues and on the average Somerville food consumer. The battle between negative economic consequences versus negative health and environmental impact forms the core of the debate amongst the Aldermen.

Any sensible child remembers the lesson learned somewhere along the way that Styrofoam should never be placed in the microwave. Remove your food from the take-out container, put it on a plate, then heat it up. Simple. The explanation for why we do this, however, is not so easily understood. Polystyrene contains the toxic substances Styrene and Benzene: overexposure to these toxins can result in severe illnesses. Hot foods and liquids, as well as alcohol, begin the breakdown of these toxins in Styrofoam.

“Exposure increases risk of leukemia, lymphoma, and other cancers,” said Melissa Lowitz of Somerville Climate Action, who then highlighted her environmental concern. “And after the city of San Francisco banned polystyrene, they had 36% less waste.”

Yet nobody had concrete evidence of exactly what levels of exposure lead to a greater risk of these cancers and other illnesses. Nobody disputed the connection, but the details of the science remain at large, in part because our country’s scientists and medical personnel cannot be sure yet either. Before making his decision on whether or not to ban polystyrene, John M. Connolly, Vice President of The Board of Aldermen, said he needs more knowledge of the presented health concerns. He also said he needs more knowledge of the presented economic concerns if the board were to implement the ban.

“Some institutions have long-term contracts with foam distributors,” said David Lutes, director of Somerville Sustainability. “While others have a lot of foam inventory.”

What would the city have these companies do with their extra Styrofoam and long-term contracts, contracts most likely implemented into any long and short-term already-made financial plans? The Board has yet to construct an answer to these questions. Some board members believe these issues should be handled once, or, if the ban is imposed, while other members do not feel comfortable imposing the ban until these questions can be adequately answered.

Grover Taylor, owner of a Somerville food and drink business, highlighted the issue of health concerns versus economic and functionality concerns. “We are a green business,” said Taylor, who brought examples of take-out food in the alternatives to Styrofoam. “But foam is the one thing I can’t give up. It’s the best for the food.”

Taylor also complained that if he were forced to use a Styrofoam alternative, his inventory costs would rise, meaning food prices would rise. So the cost of the food would rise while the quality of the take-out food could decrease. David Lutes echoed Taylor’s business concerns, stating that for food businesses, purchasing alternatives to Styrofoam cost them 1.5-3 times more than when they use the polystyrene material.

The Board of Aldermen must answer other questions too, such as how to implement polystyrene recycling programs, because polystyrene takes at least five-hundred years to biodegrade. It’s in our parks, it’s in the Charles River, and it’s on our streets. The major question, economic risks versus health and environment risks, has yet to be answered. Once that question is answered, the details, hopefully, will fall into place.

The public record on this issue will be open through April 30. The Board welcomes any and all information.



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