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Maine City Councilor Supports Banning Styrofoam Because She Doesn’t See Having Grandchildren Otherwise

May 14, 2019

The city council of Bangor, Maine has voted to ban Styrofoam containers widely used to package food and drinks, starting in January 2020.

The city council voted 5-3 for the ban Monday night, after rejecting it 6-3 in September 2017.

A new state law in Maine that the governor signed April 30 will accomplish much the same thing starting in January 2021, but local officials in Bangor want to get a head start.

Supporters of banning polystyrene, the material in Styrofoam, note that it is slow to biodegrade and argue that its abundance helps lead to global warming by increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

For one city councilor, the ban is personal.

“My position is going to be vote to have this in 2020. If anyone saw the news today, ah, CO2 levels in the Antarctic have hit numbers that have not been seen in human history. So, why not do it a year earlier, because we certainly are not doing ourselves any favors by waiting. Someone who has two kids, I have stopped saving things for my future grandchildren, because will there be grandchildren? So you know what? If putting it forward one more year maybe gives me the hope of having grandchildren, because I don’t know what kind of future my kids face, then I’m going to vote to ban the Styrofoam a year early,” said city councilor Gretchen Schaefer, according to video of the Monday, May 13 city council meeting. (Her comments begin at 28:53.)

Ben Sprague, a member of the Bangor City Council, argued that the city shouldn’t implement a different version of a polystyrene ban from that of the state sooner than the state does.

Fellow council member David Nealley pointed out inconsistencies with packaging materials public policy over the past few decades:

First, I have to concur with Councilor Sprague that as far as I’m concerned, these kinds of public policy matters are best done at the federal and state level so they’ll not have inconsistency from town to town. But if you read deeper into what the state passed, and I don’t know, maybe they’ve got another version or another version or another version after that coming, but, they exempted hospitals, and my guess is a couple of the hospitals in this town use more, or have potential to use more, Styrofoam serving cups than do R.H. Foster, Ledbetter’s, Dysarts, and some of those places all put together.

It is true that the whole industry is moving away from some of these types of materials, particularly for coffee cups, the doggie to-go boxes from restaurants, et cetera. But the reality is this is in a sense a form of greenwashing. I remember when they stripped the shopping centers from paper bags and went to a plastic bag, which of course is a petroleum-based product, which wasn’t the smartest thing in the world to do.

And don’t get me wrong, they did it with good intention. But they didn’t see the potential consequences of moving away from a pragmatic device to carry your groceries out in. And then of course once they made that mistake found out that we had a problem with these plastic bags now going into landfills, versus the paper bag, which is biodegradable, you know, they tried to push onto the consumer, “Oh, that you’re going to use some kind of a canvas bag of some sort,” or whatever they’re trying to sell next.

You know, I’m a little disturbed by the fact that if this is really critical to decrease the use of Styrofoam in the state of Maine and nationally, for purposes of the environment, that it’s O.K. to have packaging from Amazon with Styrofoam. I’m talking big chunks of Styrofoam, not a coffee cup. It’s O.K. when you go to Best Buy and buy a flatscreen, that it’s packed in Styrofoam. So that the big box stores and the heavy retailers and the big national retailers can continue to leave us with an issue of disposing of Styrofoam here in the city of Bangor, but we’ve been saved because we’re not using Styrofoam cups, although the hospitals will. And I don’t know what other exemptions might be out there based on the state law.

So many times when public policy, even with good intention, goes through, I don’t think they think it out properly. I think a lot of it’s greenwashing, and politicking.

I’m not enthusiastic about the state law, as it was written. Yet I would certainly believe as Councilor Sprague said that the prudent thing for us to do as a council, is to accept the fact that the state law has been written, and anything we thought we were going to do should mirror the state law, so we’re consistent with the communities around us.

(Nealley’s comments start at 16:27 of the video.)

A supporter of the ban, councilor Gibran Graham, said Amazon doesn’t use a lot of Styrofoam, and that the big box stores sell products packed in Styrofoam by the manufacturer, which is often overseas. He said he supports “in-country manufacturing,” which would allow the country to control packing materials.

As for banning Styrofoam, he said Bangor should do it in short order.

“We have a number of communities in the state that have already led the way in this matter of polystyrene,” Graham said. “Honestly, it feels like the state is trying to find a way to catch up. I don’t think we need to wait for the state. I think what we do need to do is we need to respond to what many citizens have asked, for us to have this policy. I don’t see a need to wait any further.”

Maine’s forthcoming Styrofoam ban is the first statewide ban in the United States.

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