In July, San Diego Councilman Chris Ward succeeded in getting a proposal, which would ban Styrofoam products ranging from cups and takeout boxes to egg cartons and mooring buoys, forwarded to the full council for a decisive vote. Ward and other proponents of the ban portray polystyrene—the main material in Styrofoam products—as environmentally damaging, impossible to recycle, and generally troublesome. However, in light of recent scientific discoveries and economic analysis, this grim portrayal is wholly unjustified.
For instance, in a recent interview, Ward told The San Diego Union-Tribune that polystyrene “does not ever break down.” However, according to a prominent 2015 study published in Environmental Science and Technology, mealworms, which live practically everywhere that humans do, not only have the ability to digest, but can survive entirely on polystyrene. Likewise, when polystyrene is burned at high temperatures, not only are the two main chemicals generated only water and carbon dioxide—the same chemicals generated in a wood-fueled bonfire—but because of the sheer abundance of heat released, polystyrene can be used to generate electricity.
In that vein, another misconception that proponents of the ban have promoted is that there are plentiful, cheap alternatives to polystyrene products. Unfortunately, according to a recent study funded by the American Chemistry Council investigating the economic effects of a potential polystyrene ban in New York City, businesses would have to spend nearly double to purchase non-polystyrene equivalent products. The potential economic consequences of Ward’s proposed ban merit serious consideration, especially because they would affect struggling small businesses.
Effectively, a polystyrene ban would raise the cost of doing business, make market entry harder, and create a less competitive economic environment for businesses that rely on polystyrene products, such as small restaurants and street food vendors. These sorts of businesses tend to have extremely thin profit margins. So, if Ward’s ban were to become law, these businesses would be disproportionately affected.
To its credit, Ward’s legislation includes a provision that would allow restaurants with revenues under $500,000 to apply for exemptions that could last for up to two years. However, since this provision applies only to restaurants and specifically to revenues and not profits, it doesn’t necessarily protect businesses with thin profit margins. Likewise, the fines that Ward’s legislation prescribes—and which will likely fall on exactly the businesses he intends to protect—are excessive: $200 for a first offense, $350 for a second offense, and $500 for a third offense (within the same 12-month period as the first offense). These aren’t losses that businesses with thin profit margins can sustain easily.
Worse, the proposed ban wouldn’t even reduce overall pollution. According to a report published by the Independent Institute, paper alternatives to polystyrene products typically create more pollution than their polystyrene equivalents and empirical research indicates that polystyrene bans don’t reduce pollution levels.
For example, a study published by the California State Water Resources Control Board examining an ongoing ban on polystyrene products in San Francisco found that the ban “does not decrease overall litter but causes a shift in litter to other materials.” And according to a related report published by the same institution, “mere substitution would not result in reduced trash generation if such product substitution would be discarded in the same manner as the banned item.” Clearly, Ward’s proposed ban, rather than substantively reducing waste, would simply raise costs.
Councilman Ward’s proposal is well-intentioned, however, many of its justifications seem to be derived more from outmoded ideas and serious misconceptions, rather than recent scientific and economic research related to polystyrene products and their alternatives. The San Diego Council should be skeptical of Ward’s rhetoric and carefully consider the needless and substantial harms that such a ban would cause.
Michael Shindler is a research fellow at the Consumer Choice Center.