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In less than two months, one of the toughest bans on single-use plastics in the Pacific will take effect.
Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai announced the initiative last year to ban plastic bags, drinking straws and polystyrene foam containers in order to protect the environment and oceans and to keep the country "clean and safe."
By Gwendolyn Wu
The San Francisco County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a ban last week on the sale of polystyrene foam, popularly known by the trademarked name Styrofoam. Foam packing, cups and mooring buoys will be prohibited starting Jan. 1, 2017.
"I just passed the toughest anti-Styrofoam law in the country and we did it unanimously," Board of Supervisors President London Breed wrote on her Facebook page after the vote. "This is a huge step for our environment and health. San Francisco is on our way to leading the country on environmental policy—again!"
Breed spearheaded the latest ban, extending a 2006 ordinance that ordered prepared-food merchants to stop using all polystyrene containers. Plastic foam products for crafts and insulation will not be affected by the ban.
"The reason why this was passed is that it's not practically recyclable, causes a unique harm in the environment and there were better alternatives," Jack Macy, commercial zero waste senior coordinator for San Francisco's Department of the Environment, told TakePart.
Polystyrene disintegrates slowly in landfills, taking centuries to break down entirely. There are a few polystyrene recycling centers in San Francisco, such as GreenCitizen and Recology, but they can only make a small dent in the 25 billion polystyrene to-go cups Americans throw away annually.
While there's been promising research on worms that eat polystyrene, scientists need to study their waste to make sure whatever is processed is safe. Environmentalists are also concerned about polystyrene foam ending up in the water, where the material falls apart and can look like fish eggs to hungry predators.
"The main challenge posed by Styrofoam is that it breaks into tiny little pieces, especially outside in the sun when it photodegrades," Allison Chan, the Clean Bay Campaign manager for the Oakland, California–based organization Save the Bay, told TakePart. "It looks more and more like food and makes them feel full and really, they're malnourished and they can die from that condition."
Critics of the ban said it will hurt supermarkets that use polystyrene trays for meat by not giving them enough time to make a switch to other food-safe packaging. The Board of Supervisors granted grocers a six-month waiver, however, to find eco-friendly packaging for meats and fish.
The American Chemistry Council disagreed with the wording of the ban, which it believes ignores the positives of using the foam and makes an assumption that substituted packing materials will be recycled at a higher rate.
"We share the city's dual goals to increase the amount of material diverted from landfill disposal and reduce materials that may be inadvertently littered in the environment," the council wrote in a letter to Breed. "However, we respectfully oppose the ordinance as drafted."
The council also wrote that the Food and Drug Administration "has approved polystyrene for food contact applications and the food safety benefits of plastic foodservice packaging, including polystyrene, are undisputed. Its inherent insulation properties maintain food temperatures and help keep food fresh, hot or cold and ready-to-eat."
The polystyrene ban is part of San Francisco's comprehensive zero-waste plan. Taxing cigarette purchases to fund cleaning cigarette butts off sidewalks and requiring new buildings to have water-bottle filling stations are some of the city's other environmental policy initiatives. More than 100 cities, including Seattle, St. Louis and Miami, have banned polystyrene foam packaging partially or completely.
This article was reposted with permission from our media partner TakePart.
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Four styrene laden products to ditch
Planning a summer barbecue this weekend or stocking up for Labor Day? Well there’s a new development around the health effects of styrene, that’s been hotly contested for years. Just this week, the National Research Council (NRC) signed off on the National Toxicology Program’s decision to list styrene as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” in its latest report on carcinogens.
The styrene industry has fought the designation as a “reasonably anticipated human carcinogen” and good government science for years. As a result styrene and styrofoam products are still quite common in the marketplace; that could change now.
Takeout containers made from foam contain styrene. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
What products have styrene?
Styrene is used to make styrofoam and other plastics. Styrene is all over the place. It lines your refrigerator, it’s in building insulation, in your carpet, it’s in latex and rubber and other products. So okay, maybe you can’t afford to ditch the refrigerator and carpet today. What can you do? Start by avoiding:
1. Foam cups for holding coffee and hot tea.
2. Foam plates and bowls that could hold hot foods.
3. Takeout containers made from foam.
4. The number 6 on plastic products. They don’t look like foam but do have styrene.
Here’s some advice from Dr. Weil’s well known website:
Styrene isn’t known to leach out of hard plastics, but some evidence suggests that it can leach out of foam food containers and cups when food or drinks are hot–not when they’re cold. Based on what we now know, you’re probably safe using styrene foam cups for cold drinks, but I wouldn’t use them for hot coffee or tea, and I would avoid using plastic containers for hot foods.
The doctor may be referring to a study from 2009 in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology. (A 2009 media report cites it here.) Or it may have been to this 201o CDC report (scroll to section 3 on health effects).
What to do? Opt for paper products, or non-styrene plastics that are washable and reusable.
Check out the Hazardous 100+ list, to see where styrene falls and other chemicals to avoid.
“Styrene and Styrofoam 101” explains the dangers of styrene in your food and its many environmental and health impacts.
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