Thursday, February 11, 2010

Polystyrene Ban Proposed

Ed Burke, 14th Ward Alderman and Chairman of the Finance Committee, proposed a city-wide ban on polystyrene products-- better known as Styrofoam-- used in the food industry. Though this proposal-- spurred by the realization that Chicago Public Schools are throwing away 35 million polystyrene lunch trays each year; that's more than 250,000 trays a day!-- is a good idea in theory, every time a political figure tries to ban something in this city, people get all up in arms. And Alderman Burke has proposed to ban a lot of stuff: plastic bags, BPA, trans fats, and smoking inside public places. While I agree these would all be in the best interests of the city, the smoking ban was the only proposal to gain any traction. However, he's also had some proposals that were pretty "out there", such as banning carriage horses from pooping on the street (has anyone ever seen a horse in a diaper? Didn't think so) and limiting dogs to 10 minutes of barking within a certain time frame, which is ridiculous on a number of levels.

If passed, this proposal-- like all proposed bans-- would come with fines that would theoretically generate much-needed revenue for the city. However, it should be pretty clear by now that this simply doesn't work; nobody pays attention to these arbitrary new mandates, and few people are fined because these proposals are so hard to enforce. Didn't the city learn anything from the foie gras debacle that made Chicago the laughing stock of the culinary world? Restaurant chefs took pride in breaking that law, which was eventually rescinded. I personally disagree with foie gras from an ethical standpoint, so I don't eat it. Not everyone shares my concern, but banning the end product didn't solve anything, especially not for the force-fed geese.

No Foam Chicago, a grass-roots organization, is backing Alderman Burke's ban, but with the very thing his proposal is lacking: facts. Among the group's top ten reasons to ban Styrofoam, they cite the chemical styrene as a known environmental hazard to human health and reproductive systems. When heated (in the microwave, or by the addition of a hot food or beverage to the container), the chemical leaches into the food and is unintentionally ingested. Also, polystyrene recycling, while possible, is quite costly and largely impractical, so the bulk of these containers wind up clogging our landfills, where they take centuries to break down.

A number of eco-friendly, biodegradable alternatives to Styrofoam packaging in recent years that are more readily available and less cost prohibitive than they were in the past. Giant corporations like McDonald's have phased out their use of polystyrene products (remember when those fried, low-grade burgers used to come in watered-down, pastel-colored clam shells?) without losing profits, and the people who consume these sandwiches are *slightly* healthier because of it.

If Alderman Burke wants to make a change to the polystyrene problem in our public schools, he might be better off playing his "won't somebody think of the children!" card, and working with CPS to find a better solution. Heck-- have the high school science teachers address the problem in their lesson plans, and let the students figure out a better way. Help them help themselves! Do I think Chicago restaurants should get away from using polystyrene packaging? Yes. Is banning Styrofoam and riling up our vibrant restaurant industry the answer? No. I believe the good people of Chicago will respond better to helpful incentives than they will to heavy-handed influence; I'm no Alderman, but I think it's worth a try!

1 comment:

Flowage said...

Proposed but not passed yet. Theres still plenty of information to disseminate on the Chicago foam ban.