Brookline mulls ban on Styrofoam, plastic bags

A spokeswoman for Dunkin’ Donuts says the company has been searching, unsuccessfully, for an alternative material 
for its hot-beverage containers.
A spokeswoman for Dunkin’ Donuts says the company has been searching, unsuccessfully, for an alternative material for its hot-beverage containers. Pat Greenhouse/globe staff/file

A cup of coffee served at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Great Barrington earlier this year could soon lead to a ban on plastic-foam food and beverage containers in Brookline.

A proposal that will go before Special Town Meeting in November seeks to prohibit the use of disposable polystyrene (also known by its trademarked name, Styrofoam) for take-out food packages.

Another proposal on the Nov. 13 meeting’s warrant would also prohibit stores from providing disposable plastic shopping bags to customers.

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Business interests say finding a suitable, more sustainable substitute for polystyrene cups for hot beverages has been difficult, and banning plastic bags could cost businesses and consumers more money.  

The proposals follow on the heels of a ban on single-serving plastic water bottles passed by Concord Town Meeting in April, and approved by Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office early this month.

Brookline Town Meeting member Nancy Heller proposed the ban on polystyrene containers after she stopped in a Dunkin’ Donuts shop in Great Barrington and was served coffee in a paper cup.

Heller said she asked why she didn’t get the usual cup, and was informed of a bylaw enacted in the Western Massachusetts community in 1990 that prohibits the use of polystyrene food containers.

Inspired by the Great Barrington law, Heller did her own research on polystyrene, and learned of health and environmental concerns that prompted her to propose a similar ban, which would affect the packaging for take-out meals at local restaurants as well as coffee cups, in Brookline.

“No more morning joe in Styrofoam cups for me,” Heller said.

The warrant article that would prohibit retailers from providing customers with disposable plastic check-out bags was submitted by Jessica Arconti, a 25-year-old biologist who recently moved from Brookline to Colorado.

Arconti said she’s concerned about the poor biodegradability of the disposable plastic bags given out by local grocery stores and pharmacies, and their effect on the environment. In her travels to other countries, Arconti said, she noticed stores were using corn-based bags that are biodegradable, unlike the plastic bags.

Before she moved out of state, Arconti said, she gathered enough signatures to place the article, which would require any retail establishment that provides check-out bags to customers to use compostable, marine-degradable bags instead of disposable plastic bags. Reusable check-out bags and recyclable paper bags could also be used.

The proposal calls for a $50 fine for a store’s first offense, $100 for the second offense, and a mandatory court appearance for a third offense.

The Brookline Chamber of Commerce is in the process of examining the likely effects of the proposed plastic-packaging bans on local businesses, executive director Harry Robinson said. He said the paper and compostable plastic bags that would be allowed as an alternative could place some additional costs on businesses during tough economic times.

Heller said environmental concerns played a role in her proposal to ban polystyrene packaging. While the material can be recycled, Heller said, the process is cumbersome, and residents in Brookline cannot put plastic-foam containers in with other recyclable materials that are picked up by the town. Instead, she said, residents wishing to recycle the containers must take them to the Department of Public Works on special drop-off days each year.

Dunkin’ Donuts, along with other companies in the food and beverage industry, has been searching for a more sustainable coffee container, but there is no easily recyclable cup for hot beverages available, according to spokeswoman Michelle King.  She said the chain’s customers count on having coffee served in convenient, durable, affordable cups that can keep coffee hot longer while keeping hands cool.

“We are working hard to find a solution that works for our guests, franchisees, and the environment,” King said.

To minimize waste while the company searches for another cup, King said, Dunkin’ Donuts has reduced the weight of its plastic-foam hot cups and plastic cold cups, and offers a reusable mug program as an option for its franchisees.

Heller’s proposed ban on polystyrene containers would prevent food and beverages from being packaged on the premises of any food service establishment in Brookline, but would not affect products packaged outside of the town. Her petition article calls for the ban to take effect on Dec. 1 , 2013.

An active Town Meeting member in Brookline, Heller cosponsored a noise-nuisance bylaw, approved in 2010, that allows police to fine hosts and guests for loud parties.

Heller said she’s also concerned that the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, added styrene — which is used to make polystyrene — to a list of materials that are reasonably anticipated to be carcinogens.

The federal agency added the substance to its 2011 Report on Carcinogens, which said styrene can leach from the containers into food products.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences website, however, states that the listing of styrene in the Report of Carcinogens was based on high levels of exposure, such as what a worker might be exposed to in an industrial setting, not the small amount of styrene used in a coffee cup.

But Heller said she won’t accept any food or beverages in a plastic foam container. She said her warrant article is also intended to look out for people who may not be aware of the health concerns about polystyrene.

“You want to protect people who don’t have the knowledge or the information,” she said.

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