When creating public policy that will impact people and the environment, it’s best to get the facts right.
Recently a Boston City Council committee heard testimony on the idea of banning certain foodservice items, specifically the lightweight foam cups and clamshells that keep our hot foods hot and our cold foods cold (typically called EPS, a type of plastic).
The committee’s co-chair claimed that EPS foodservice items fill up to 30% of landfill space. But according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018 plastic foodservice items including EPS “comprised an estimated 1 million tons, or 0.4% of MSW” (municipal solid waste).
So the claim was off by a factor of 75 … not even close.
Giving incorrect information to the public and restaurateurs misleads people who may think they’re doing the right thing by switching from EPS. That’s no way to contribute to helpful public policy. Before recommending banning one product in favor of another, the council should start with facts backed up by science and research.
And that research shows that EPS is a remarkable material. It’s typically more than 90% air, so it requires very little plastic to manufacture. It’s made with less material than alternatives and uses less energy and water to produce than alternatives.
EPS foodservice items typically do a better job keeping our food hot or cold and edible, which helps prevent food waste, the No. 1 material entering our landfills (about 24%) and a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In a nation that wastes nearly 40% of its food, we should be using packaging that best prevents food waste.
Simply put, banning EPS foodservice items would be a step backward for our environment.
(Beyond foodservice, EPS is used throughout our nation’s economy to insulate our homes, package our meat and fish, protect us when riding our bikes, and even make our surfboards. EPS packaging is playing a key role during the pandemic by helping protect much of our nation’s vaccine supply and keep it cool during transport.)
However, due to poor waste management and litter, EPS and other foodservice items (burger wrappers, straws, to-go bags, etc.) far too often wind up in our environment. That’s unacceptable. But we cannot ban our way to effective waste management. As other communities have learned, banning one type of foodservice item simply leads to other types in the environment.
The City Council instead should focus on helping create the infrastructure to recycle EPS and to create a more circular economy in which materials are reused rather than discarded. Updating our recycling infrastructure like other developed nations will help recover more types of plastics and other materials and keep them out of the environment.
For example, new technologies now allow us to convert EPS and other plastics back into their original building blocks to be recycled into new plastics and other valuable products. Billions of dollars of private industry investment in these technologies — called advanced recycling — is jumpstarting plastics recycling, focused on hard-to-recycle plastics such as EPS foodservice, plastic pouches and mixed plastics.
Alternatives to EPS typically are not recycled or composted, so they end up in landfills, incinerators and the environment. And they typically are much more expensive … and getting more expensive due to increased demand.
As Boston and the nation recover from the economic fallout of a debilitating pandemic, the council should not be advancing policies that would increase financial challenges for consumers, businesses, restaurants and schools.
Let’s focus on fixing the problem. And the facts.
Joshua Baca, is vice president, plastics, for the American Chemistry Council .