National Interest

Are Styrofoam Containers Really So Bad? Well, Yeah

Sadly, the bad stuff still costs half as much as the degradable stuff.
Sadly, the bad stuff still costs half as much as the degradable stuff. Photo: Web Restaurant Store

The California state legislature is considering a bill that would ban the use of Styrofoam takeout containers across the state — something that progressive Berkeley did two decades ago. San Franciscans have long been appalled when they travel to L.A. and elsewhere to find the polystyrene stuff still being used pretty much everywhere, but it’s a state senator from Long Beach, Alan Lowenthal, who’s spearheading the new bill. As he tells the AP, “It’s not biodegradable, it’s not compostable, and if it’s in the water for a long time, it breaks up into small beads and lasts for thousands of years.” But restaurant owners are griping about how the biodegradable containers cost twice as much, and if they’re serving messy, soupy stuff like ribs and beans, they have to use two of the green containers because food soaks through so easily. And isn’t there such a thing as degradable styrene?

Grub Street finds that yes, it is true that the traditional polystyrene containers available from suppliers like the Web Restaurant Store cost about seven cents apiece in bulk, while their biodegradable equivalents cost fifteen cents. And yes, there appears to be a new variety of oxo- and biodegredable styrene containers, invented a few years ago and marketed by a Canadian company, but among U.S. suppliers those don’t seem to be very widely available — and they likely cost as much or more than the biodegradable, corn-sugar and sugar-cane-based clamshell boxes, which can be as much as 40 cents apiece.

But really people, wouldn’t we all be happy to spend eight or even twenty cents more for an omelet that didn’t come in something that leached styrene and chemicals into our food? Not to mention the fact that something that degrades if you leave wet food in it too long is clearly going to take up less space in a landfill than a piece of degradable styrene, which takes three years to fully degrade.

It also stands to reason that the more states that ban the bad stuff, the more it will drive down the price of the good stuff. So, note to cheap restaurateurs: Stop complaining. You’ll live.

Proposed California styrofoam ban highlights two green issues: Ecology and money
[AP/SF Gate]

Are Styrofoam Containers Really So Bad? Well, Yeah