It is not uncommon for a well-intentioned idea to actually end up causing more harm than good, especially if the idea is rushed and not thought all the way through. That, unfortunately, is what we are seeing with Senate Bill 243, a piece of legislation introduced with just days to go in the 2019 legislative session that would prohibit restaurants and other food vendors in the state from using polystyrene containers to serve, sell or store food in.
As a restauranteur and small-business owner who cares about my community and the world which I will leave my children, I am deeply concerned about environmental pollution. I, like most restaurant owners, work every day to ensure that we are providing quality food and service to our customers in a manner that is environmentally responsible. If banning polystyrene containers from my restaurant would solve the problem it is trying to address, I would get rid of them tomorrow. But the fact is that these containers — used, for example, for take-out orders or to package your leftovers to take home rather than wasting food — are not only highly useful and versatile, but they also present a lighter environmental footprint than the alternatives.
Consider how various types of food containers are made: polystyrene containers use far less water and energy in their production than do the alternatives. They also weigh much less, which means that more can be transported in one shipment, reducing air emissions during delivery to the restaurant.
Consider as well, the other characteristics which make polystyrene attractive in the first place — namely its strength and insulating properties. This means that less material is required to serve the purpose for which it is intended. Other types of packaging require, and even encourage, waste — double cupping, for example, to protect against burns or leakage. Such wasteful practices are unnecessary with polystyrene, because it is purposely built to do more with less.
Now think about the alternatives that are available to the food service industry. Compostable containers sound nice, but they have inherent problems; they are heavier, but less durable and not as good at insulating, so more packaging is required when using these products. This not only means more energy is required to produce and deliver them to market, but also means more litter. If our concern is to reduce the amount of trash we see littering the sides of our roads and taking up space in our landfills, it does not make sense to mandate use of packaging which generates more, not less, waste.
Some believe that switching to compostable material provides the answer, but there is more to the story. Compostable does not necessarily translate to fully biodegradable. These containers only degrade in highly controlled environments, in conditions exceeding 140 degrees F — not if they are left on the side of the road or even in a garbage can, bound for a landfill. Unless the state has in place the infrastructure necessary to sort, recycle and/or compost these products on an industrial scale, we are putting the cart well before the horse and exacerbating the problem we are seeking to solve.
Finally, we cannot avoid the issue of cost. Polystyrene is two to three times more affordable than any alternative on the market; therefore, banning polystyrene will add considerably to the operating costs of restaurants like mine. Like many small businesses, restaurants operate on extremely tight margins. We would have no choice but to pass along the added cost to our customers by raising our prices. I do not wish to make my customers pay more for less efficient to-go packaging that creates more waste.
I would encourage our state lawmakers to look at the bigger picture; before settling on the easy answer, consider the hidden costs — what is the full environmental impact of forcing a switch to a different type of material? Are we considering the greenhouse gas impacts of producing and shipping a heavier product? Are we accounting for the added cost and waste? Do we have the infrastructure in place to manage this change?
The simple answer is not always the best. Banning polystyrene seems like a good idea at first glance, but a deeper look reveals that the unintended consequences are prohibitive. Let’s work together, not during the hectic final days of the legislative session, but in the interim months when we can take a thoughtful, comprehensive look at how best as a society to manage our food service packaging challenges.
Lasinda Crane is the owner of Cranelli’s Italian Restaurant in Lone Tree.