Proposed ban on foam containers, trays is ill-timed in pandemic, Connecticut retailers, schools tell lawmakers

Media Hit | Hartford Courant

As restaurants and retailers have struggled to keep their doors open during the pandemic, foam containers have become the lifeblood of many restaurants as takeout orders have exploded.

But Connecticut environmentalists say the containers are major polluters that should be banned by 2023 because the products do not break down naturally, pollute the oceans and take up excessive space in landfills.

The two sides clashed Wednesday over a controversial bill in the environment committee that would also ban foam trays in school cafeterias starting in July 2023 and direct restaurant owners to avoid distributing plastic drinking straws unless specifically asked by a customer. The issues have been heightened as officials debate Connecticut’s environmental future because Hartford’s trash-to-energy plant is projected to close in the summer of 2022, forcing garbage to be sent to out-of-state landfills in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania at a higher cost.

Timothy Phelan, the longtime president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association, said the retailers favor more recycling but are asking legislators to drop the proposal entirely as some retailers are still struggling to keep their doors open.

“As the saying goes, timing is everything. And this proposal is the wrong solution at the wrong time,” Phelan said in testimony submitted to the committee. “Some of the very containers that would be prohibited in this legislation have been essential elements of the business response to customers in the pandemic for curbside pick-up of certain items. Before abruptly moving in this direction, it would be important to thoroughly assess alternatives, so be certain that they will function as effectively for the end user — our customers, Connecticut consumers.”

Phelan warned that making a fast move in the legislature could backfire as many businesses have been under stress for the past year.

“The state should also take care that we don’t end up in a situation that some have likened to one step forward, two steps back,” he said. “That may be especially true when it comes to litter. In an effort to limit litter — certainly a laudable goal — changing products and priorities could do just the opposite, resulting in more litter, rather than less. And there may be greater, rather than lesser, environmental impacts by switching to products that appear to be more environmentally friendly.”

Besides phasing out certain food containers, the multipronged bill would also “prohibit the intentional release of certain helium balloons and examine the compostable nature of certain single-use produce bags.”

School officials argued that forcing districts to eliminate foam trays and making them buy higher-priced alternatives will be a financially difficult mandate at a time when many school cafeterias are losing money because children are staying at home and engaging in online learning during the pandemic. Overall, 85% of Connecticut school cafeteria operators in a recent survey said they expect to lose money this year.

“The additional expense to utilize paper over Styrofoam is a larger expense for a district, as much as three times the expense,” the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education said in written testimony on the bill. “Some districts have discontinued use of heavy plastic trays as machinery to wash them have broken and have been expensive to fix. The cost of being mandated to make this change would affect the cost of meals and would impact families who are struggling to pay down school lunch debt. At this time, school districts are making heroic efforts to get meals to needy students. This is the priority.”

Erica Biagetti, the director of dining services for the Guilford public schools and president of the School Nutrition Association of Connecticut, also cautioned legislators regarding the costs of such changes.

A nonpartisan legislative analysis showed that eliminating the Styrofoam trays could cost the schools as much as $2.7 million in additional costs, she said.

“Given the sharp increase in the price of supplies and supply chain issues this past year, that cost estimate could significantly understate the cost to districts,” Biagetti said. “For example, plastic gloves have increased from $15 per case to over $100 per case and continue to rise due to supply issues which we expect will continue into the coming years. Paper milk straws are 10 times the cost of plastic milk straws, and the availability of paper straws is limited due to production issues. Alternatives to Styrofoam include paper or fiber trays. These trays can cost up to three to five times the cost of a traditional foam tray. … If a larger portion of their budget is focused on paper/fiber trays it could hinder a district’s ability to offer students a variety of healthy, fresh breakfast/lunch options, including fresh local fruits and vegetables.”

But environmentalists strongly favor the bill as garbage continues to pile up on a daily basis.

Corinne Bolding, chairwoman of the ConnPIRG Zero Waste Campaign, said in written testimony that Connecticut must act boldly against the ongoing daily waste.

“In America, we have a ‘stuff’ problem,” Bolding said. “Our economy encourages us to make, use, and toss at the greatest possible speed, which results in using and disposing of an estimated 300 million plastic grocery bags, 70 million Styrofoam cups, and half a billion plastic straws every day. About a third of that plastic trash ends up in rivers, lakes and oceans while most of the rest spends hundreds of years sitting in landfills. One of the worst forms of plastic is polystyrene, or Styrofoam. It’s toxic, breaks apart easily, and never really goes away. Nothing that we use for a few minutes should pollute our environment for hundreds of years.”

Louis Rosado Burch, Connecticut program director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment that has more than 120,000 members in Connecticut and New York, said his group not only favors the banning but wants to speed it up even faster than the bill allows because alternatives are available. He said the state established a goal in 2016 of diverting 60% of its municipal solid waste by 2024, but so far the recycling rate is still only around 30%. Towns such as Norwalk, Stamford, Westport and Groton have already banned the containers, and the rest of the state can do the same, he said.

By contrast, the American Chemistry Council argued the Styrofoam containers are not easily replaceable.

“This legislation falsely assumes that alternatives to foam food service containers are environmentally preferable and could be recycled or composted,” the council said. “This proposal also harms restaurants which use PS foam to provide curbside and take-out service, the lifeblood of restaurants during the COVID pandemic.”

Christopher Keating can be reached at [email protected]