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.



21 Responses to “The ban on polystyrene: Economic consequences vs. health consequences”

  1. Ray Spitzer says:

    No brainer. Ban them. People are just lazy and don’t want to do anything different, even if the usual way is destroying the world and our health. Are we supposed to believe that banning these containers will cause an economic apocalypse? Give me a break. Lawmakers should just be leaders for once and force people to find better ways.

  2. A. Moore says:

    At the very least Somerville should recycle this. To ban it from one city is a complete waste of time and energy. It will still be in our trash to be disposed of in land fills. If you are going to ban this it should be done at least on the state level to have any effect on stopping the use of it. And it can be recycled.

  3. Josh Harris says:

    This article is filled with misinformation.

    It’s not a health reason why one should not heat food in a foam container, its because polystyrene melts below the temperature of steam. Mircowaves heat the moisture in the food to create steam that then heats the food, and the steam created will melt polystyrene, and yes, get into your food.

    Banning foam in SF decreased waste by 36%, seriously? Food is the number one waste product in the US municipal solid waste according to the EPA. Can anyone seriously say there each week their trash can is filled with more than 30% foam when they roll it to the curb.

    And even the writer states that it is unclear if there really is a health issue related to the use of foam or the materials used to make it.

    Government officials should not force people to find better ways. If that is what you want, then they you should be happy with them telling you what car you can purchase, what foods to eat, what clothes you can wear, and the list goes on. If a restaurant wants to use foam, let them, if they want to purchase an alternative to foam, let them.

  4. Jay Cupp says:

    How does someone know it takes 500 years for foam to biodegrade? Foam has only been around for roughly 60 years, so there is no way to know that for sure. Foam is 100% recyclable, and the recycled content is used to make picture frames and other plastic house hold products. This ban would do nothing to enhance our health and well being, as the exposure to styrene and benzene are minimal through the use of polystyrene products. If they are trying to pass this ban on the basis that it will eliminate a health risk, they are sadly misinformed. The science does not support such claims.

  5. Richelle says:

    I want to know who is going to tell Dunkin Donuts that they can’t use styrofoam?

  6. Ray Spitzer says:

    Dunkin Donuts can move out of Somerville, if they don’t like it. Good riddance! There would be plenty of local cafes that would take his place.

  7. amen says:

    i favor banning it because of the heat/melting issue. someone questioned the value of one city doing it. hopefully others follow. as for the 500 years, i know they test things, then do some math to get that number. my research shows different results: spring yard cleaning every year i find plastic bags/styro cups that blew in. after a winter of snow/sun, etc. they snap into pieces in my hand, so i think the 500 year thing is crap. Dunkin jumped the shark years ago, their coffee hasn’t been good for a long time, and i haven’t seen a donut that went anywhere near a honey dip for years.

  8. ritepride says:

    A] I agree that we should do what we can to protect the environment.
    B] However as one person pointed out to me regarding endangered species, that is part of the evolution process that has gone on for thousands upon thousands of years without mans/womans interference. I put more priority on protecting human life, having no hungry children in the world before worrying about the yellow spotted, three toed, toad or birds, sharks, etc.

  9. Jane Oslin says:

    The discussion around the styrofoam ban comes down to the question of who should bear the external costs on our health and the environment–and this is exactly where government regulation can be effective.

  10. Boston Kate says:

    @A. Moore’s comment makes the most sense; why can’t politicians think as clearly as he does.

  11. Mike says:

    There is no benzene in Polystyrene. Polystyrene is a polymer of the monomer styrene. Styrene is made FROM ethylene (a gas found in your fridge if you have ripening fruit) and Benzene. They are chemically reacted together into something completely different. It’s like saying if you have water – you have hydrogen gas – because water is made up of oxygen and hydrogen (H2O).

    The plastic polystyrene is not likely even made from “foreign” oil if you’re in North America. It’s source may well be domestically produced natural gas.

    Polystyrene is 100% recycleable, and I agree with other posters here. I used EPS foamboard on my basement wall insulation (exterior) – the tops of which are alredy breaking down after two years’ exposure.

    Most of the alternatives proposed – i.e. a “paper” cup – are non-insulating plastic coated paper (how do you think liquids don’t soak through?). There is no free ride here. Paper is not an eco-alternative. Paper manufacture is not exactly without consequence. Plastic coated paper is not recycleable.

    If you had a cinnamon bun with your coffee, you are ingesting waaay more styrene (cinnamene) than you ever might from foodservice products under ANY conditions. A chemical synonym for styrene is cinnamene.

    Cinnamene is naturally present in all kinds of plants and food items – from cinnamon to coffee and is actually a USDA approved flavorant used in items from ice cream to candy (USEPA FACT SHEET).

    In fact, Styrene is named after “Styrax” – the resin from the Oriental Sweetgum tree, where it naturally occurs and was first isolated.

    But don’t believe me – do your own research into these facts I present.

  12. Josh says:

    Josh Harris, I totally agree (and not just because you have a cool name!). I am so tired of the government micro-managing our lives and telling us what we can or can’t do and what we should or shouldn’t do. Let the market decide. People are happy to have cigarettes or styrofoam banned, but won’t be so happy when the powers that be decide to ban chocolate or red meat. Why are we allowing them to move so far outside of what is their legal purview?

  13. John Doherty says:

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion but they are not entitled to making up their own facts.

    FACT: The food safety benefits and the usage of polystyrene for food-service are undisputed. The US Food and Drug Administration regulates foodcontact packaging & they have approved the use of polystyrene since 1958 (50 plus years), so too have governments from around the world.
    Learn more @

  14. Ray Spitzer says:

    All the government needs to do is add taxes on these things that will be used to pay for recycling and advertising against using them.

  15. amen says:

    2 things:
    John Doherty–is that the same Food/Drug Admin that approved Celebrex? Hormone Replacement Therapy? Fen-fen? Sacharin? ok, just checking, i feel better.
    Ray Spitzer–one of the huge problems in govt. right now-taxes are not supposed to be a punishment to change behavior. it’s routine now to slap tax on something we don’t want people to use, and it’s against all our principles.

  16. John Doherty says:

    To Amen: The only reason that Somerville (or any city or town) is considering any ordinance like this is under their powers re: solid waste management– period. The safety of any material can not nor needs to be considered at a local level that has no legal/ethical authority to do so. So your beef should be with your Congressman, Senators and Executive Branch re: your false claims. I have faith in President Obama and the FDA. Common sense would/should tell you that that our FDA is correct because they are backed up by all of other counterparts/countries around the world, where polystyrene is also approved for food-service ware usage. The safety of PS is not in dispute in Somerville as a legal matter nor is it within the real and true scientific communities or by the federal or state regulators and for that matter nor does the American Cancer Society believe that your claims have ANY validity.

  17. amen says:

    how can you trust the FDA with a lengthy list of approved meds that actually killed people? i think they’ve proven themselves useless. actual heart damage from some of the meds i’ve listed. life-changing or life-ending side effects that snuck by our FDA genius’s somehow

  18. John Doherty says:

    Amen: You know that the division that regulates meds or drugs has NOTHING to with the regulating of Food Contact Packaging Materials?? The science of polymers, their composition & reactions when used for food packaging is very well established and the FDA is 100% trustworthy in this regard. Again, go to to learn more. Also, UMASS Amherst Polymer Center is a good resource. UMASS Amherst awards more Doctorates in Polymer Science then any institution in the world they will verify that the safety is NOT in dispute of PS food-service ware and your worry’s are unfounded.

  19. amen says:

    it’s all the same Food & Drug Administration–if one section is a disaster, do you trust that the other branch is ok? they’re overseen by the same person, and i wouldn’t take their word on anything. FDA-100% Trustworthy–i hope you left some cookies out for Santa this year

  20. Ray Spitzer says:

    Amen, John is saying that we should eat the plastic crap, die slowly as a result and just shut up ‘cuz the UMASS Amherst Polymer Center says it’s OK. Ever heard of conflict of interest, Mr Doherty? An institution that lives off selling polymers will not tell you polymers are bad…

  21. ritepride says:

    The government cannot get anything straight. In Dec 2012, I received an out of date tax refund check for $3.46. So I mailed it to the IRS to issue a new check.

    April 29, 2012 I receive an envelope from the Veterans Administration asking for my military ID, etc, .etc, etc. It also included a sheet from their accounts payable showing checks issued to office supply Co in one state and a doctor’s office in another state, etc. Nothing that addressed my IRS issue. Evidently DC Sequestering means they are forwarding mail from one agency to the next instead of addressing payment issues.

    So I now await receiving a letter from some other government agency regarding my outdated check issue. Probably the File Under Congressional Kindergarten [Agency]… you all know the initials for this agency.

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