Fox News reports that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg intends to propose a ban on plastic foam food packaging in today’s State of the City address. His argument deserves an objective analysis.
Here is part of what Bloomberg will say, according to Fox, which cites a report from the AP:
One product that is virtually impossible to recycle and never biodegrades is Styrofoam … something that we know is environmentally destructive and that may be hazardous to our health, that is costing taxpayers money and that we can easily do without, and is something that should go the way of lead paint.
Each of these points is addressed briefly below.
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) containers are not STYROFOAM™
STYROFOAM™ is the Dow Chemical Company’s trademarked brand of plastic foam. Dow wants to take credit for its product, protect its trademark, and deny others the ability to represent their products as Dow’s.
STYROFOAM™ is not a category name for all polystyrene-based foam materials, so please do not use it as such. When talking or writing about STYROFOAM™ Brand products, please use the brand correctly; help us retain its distinctive value. If in doubt, please use the term “plastic foam.”
The Dow Chemical Company is committed to protecting the STYROFOAM™ trademark and will proactively guard against counterfeits and trademark abuses.
Also, Dow does not want STYROFOAM™ to be confused with expanded polystyrene packaging (EPS) and clearly asks reporters to make this distinction clear in its media guidelines:
When writing about STYROFOAM™ Brand products, please follow these guidelines:
1. DO NOT USE THE TRADEMARK TO DESCRIBE EPS PRODUCTS.
Please do not use the STYROFOAM™ name to describe disposable packaging and containers – like coffee cups and coolers. These products are made from expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam.
STYROFOAM™ is a different product, a rigid, extruded polystyrene foam used in construction for insulation, weather- and damp-proofing, and for various craft hobbies. All materials that may come in contact with food must be approved for such use by the US Food and Drug Administration, and STYROFOAM™ is not one of them.
Are expanded polystyrene containers disproportionately expensive to dispose?
Saying that these materials are “costing taxpayers money” implies that they are disproportionately expensive to dispose. If they are not, however, then the statement is false or it means that New York City’s fees for municipal waste disposal are too low. Bloomberg is not targeting municipal solid waste in general.
Virtually nothing biodegrades in a modern municipal waste landfill
It is true that EPS containers do not biodegrade in a modern landfill. But virtually nothing else does, either. The reason why is modern landfills are designed and operated in accordance with detailed federal regulations that prohibit significant amounts of water from entering or being retained. William Rathje, the primary authors of Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage (1992), was able to excavate relatively ancient, otherwise biodegradable materials such as news papers from a Tuscon Arizona landfill. They also discovered that fast food packaging, some of which is EPS, has historically comprised a much smaller share of landfill waste than newspapers.
The fact that EPS food containers do not biodegrade is thus true only in an innocuous way. If only wastes that actually biodegraded were permitted to be disposed in landfills, virtually nothing would be allowed to be disposed. It is hard to understand why Bloomberg means when he says EPS containers are “environmentally destructive.”
EPS food containers are safe
Bloomberg’s assertion that EPS food containers “may be hazardous to our health” is false. As noted above, all food contact materials must be approved by the FDA. Bloomberg implicitly asserts that he has superior expertise in safety evaluation than the FDA, and that the FDA has acted improperly to approve food contact materials that are unsafe.
“We can easily do without” EPS food containers, but only at higher cost, reduced performance, or both
EPS is used for food containers because it provides a market-tested balance between cost and performance. Substitute products obtain a different mix of these attributes. Banning expanded polystyrene containers can be expected to result in higher costs, less consumer acceptance due to reduced performance, or both. If there is a superior technology out there — or someone can succeed in inventing one — it should be able to displace EPS in the marketplace. There are no market imperfections that would impede the adoption of a superior technology, though it is possible that a superior technology could not pass the regulatory approval process at FDA.
Expanded polystyrene containers are nothing like lead-based paint
Bloomberg’s comparison is analytically nonsensical. Lead-based paint was eliminated from the market because it was (and in some places, continues to be) sometimes ingested by young children, causing elevated blood lead levels. At high doses, lead causes significant neurological harm. Expanded polystyrene containers are not ingested, and they would cause no adverse health effects even if they were because they are biologically inert. It is difficult to imagine any important way in which expanded polystyrene containers are like lead-based paint.
Bootleggers and Baptists
In a now-famous 1983 article titled Bootleggers and Baptists, economist Bruce Yandle explained how regulatory initiatives such as this are so popular. Yandle noted that those who disapproved of alcohol consumption (Baptists) allied with those who benefited from its illegality (bootleggers) to provide the political support for restrictions on alcohol sales:
Bootleggers, you will remember, support Sunday closing laws that shut down all the local bars and liquor stores. Baptists support the same laws and lobby vigorously for them. Both parties gain, while the regulators are content because the law is easy to administer.
For competing materials to succeed in the market, they must have cost or performance advantages over EPS. But they need none of these advantages if municipalities like New York City ban EPS containers. Perhaps reporters will pursue this line of inquiry in follow-up stories they run after the mayor’s speech today. Which companies support the major’s proposed ban?