Do Foam Bans Harm Small Businesses More Than Help the Environment?

Portland, Maine is on the eve of banning polystyrene foam. On June 18, 2012 the city council voted to draft an ordinance to ban all foam products within the city limits. The ban would include commonplace takeout items such as foam cups and ‘to go’ containers that most local restaurants and coffee shops use [1]. Similar bans have been instated in cities across the country, each one aimed at reducing landfill waste and helping the environment, but the question remains: Do these bans work, or do they simply harm small businesses and the local economy?

Portland, Oregon banned foam in 1990. Eighteen years later, the Cascade Policy Institute wrote a retrospective on whether or not the intended environmental benefits were realized. The study compared the costs to produce and recycle both polystyrene and paper products, as well as examined the economic and environmental effects of the ban on the Portland community. One of the driving arguments for the Portland ban was that Oregon landfills were quickly approaching maximum capacity. After the instatement of the ban, it showed that polystyrene products made up only 15% of all landfill waste compared to paper product’s 26% [2]. Supporters of the ban also cited that polystyrene products were not recyclable, and if paper products were mandated citizens would therefore increase recycling habits. However, the ban elicited the exact opposite effect. The Denton polystyrene recycling center shut down shortly after the ban was instated, and even though paper products were used in substitution, consumers continued to simply throw them out [2].

The Portland, Oregon ban also showed that it harmed the local economy. Paper products are significantly more expensive to manufacture than polystyrene containers, a cost that is directly transferred onto the owners and patrons of local restaurants and coffee shops that are mandated to use the paper products. Higher costs also curb potential entrepreneurs and start-up ventures. Portland, Maine resident Dan Fuentes started his business selling coffee out of paper cups, but quickly switched over to foam in order to ensure his business stayed afloat [1].

This makes total sense when you examine the Franklin associates 1996 comparative “life cycle” study of the environmental impact of polystyrene foam and paper products. It showed that overall the manufacturing of paper containers results in 42% more water pollution, 46% more air pollution, and 75% more industrial waste than polystyrene products  because they are harder to manufacture, and therefore more expensive both environmentally and economically[2].

All in all, after longer-term study of economies that have adopted foam bans to be environmentally safe, it has shown the citizens are the ones who pay the price of paper both environmentally and economically.

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Foam Bans