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Somerville considers ban on Styrofoam

Published: Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 02:04

The Somerville Board of Aldermen is weighing a proposed ban on Styrofoam takeout food containers, citing its negative impact on the environment, while local businesses have expressed concern that the ban would hurt sales and increase costs.

Ward 7 Alderman Robert Trane said he proposed the ordinance to ban Styrofoam, known to scientists as polystyrene, and originally submitted it to the board for consideration a few months ago. Trane said that citizen concerns led him to investigate polystyrene’s environmental impact.

“It started with an email from a resident asking about polystyrene,” Trane told the Daily in an email. “I was always picking up a cup or a container off the street when I was walking around the neighborhood. It got me thinking about it and I started doing research on the subject.”

Trane discovered that the Department of Health and Human Services identifies polystyrene as a possible cause of cancer. He also noticed that many Somerville restaurants and chains, including Dunkin Donuts, use polystyrene cups for drinks and takeout food.

“I saw that Dunkin Donuts sells 1.5 billion cups of coffee a year,” he said. “Take that number plus the numerous others in the coffee category, and the number is staggering.”

Trane also noted that only five percent of polystyrene is recycled nationwide.

Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz cited polystyrene’s negative health and environmental effects as an additional reason for the ban.

“Styrofoam isn’t easily recyclable and pollutes the air if it’s burned,” Gewirtz told the Daily. “It has chemical material which gets into people’s bodies and isn’t healthy.”

Trane and Gewirtz believe businesses can substitute paper materials for polystyrene.

“Paper cups are recyclable in Somerville,” Gewirtz said. “I haven’t heard any good arguments against it at this point.”

The proposed ban is currently under review in the board’s Committee on Legislative Matters, according to Trane. The committee is currently trying to gather more information on the ban’s potential economic impact, as some board members are worried the ban will hurt the local economy, he said.

“Some members have a concern that it might negatively impact some small local business people,” Trane said. “I have suggested that we use a phased approach so that they can run down inventory on hand and allow time for them to source a replacement product.”

Representatives from Dunkin Donuts and Dart Container Corporation, a major disposable food container manufacturer, spoke against the proposed ordinance at a public committee hearing on Feb. 27. They argue that it will force businesses to scramble to find alternative containers that are both cost−efficient and liked by customers.

Tom Leone, who owns three Dunkin Donuts stores in Somerville, said that he anticipates the ban would require him to use paper cups, which are costlier.

“[The ban will] make the cost of doing paper more expensive,” Leone told the Daily.

He also echoed the sentiment shared by others who opposed the ban that Dunkin Donuts customers would respond negatively to paper cups.

“People seem to prefer Styrofoam at this point,” he said.

Leone attended the public hearing on Feb. 27 and argued against the ban to the aldermen on the committee.

Others oppose the ban because local companies such as ReFoamit in Ayer, Mass., recycle polystyrene, according to a Feb. 28 Somerville Patch article.

The ban will also affect public schools in Somerville, many of which use polystyrene trays at breakfast and lunch, according to a March 15 Somerville Patch article. Pat Durrette, the finance director of the Somerville Public Schools, argued that other tray material options tend to be more expensive than polystyrene and would raise school costs.

Once the committee finishes reviewing the ordinance, they will send it to the Board of Aldermen with a recommendation, Trane said. The Board will then use a roll call vote to either reject or enact the ordinance.

If the Board supports it, then Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone will have to sign the ordinance into law, according to Trane. Curtatone has thrown his full support behind the ban, Trane said.

The board will discuss the ban in a meeting tomorrow, according to Gewirtz.

“I think it’s a good idea,” she said. “Based on the testimony we’ve heard, and the evidence, it seems to suggest that this is the direction things are going anyway.”

Trane echoed Gewirtz’s sentiments.

“We, as a city, have been very proactive when it comes to environmental issues and this fits with all of the other efforts that we have made to date,” he said.

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