A recent overhaul of an existing recycling ordinance in Minneapolis means that food and beverage vendors have until April 22, 2015 (Earth Day) to stop using containers made of expanded polystyrene or EPS foam. The material – which is most commonly known as Styrofoam – is difficult to dispose of sustainably: it turns into a toxic ash when burned, and takes centuries to deteriorate when landfilled, where it often breaks into smaller pieces animals mistake for food. It is also challenging and unprofitable to recycle, since it is often contaminated by food and is comprised largely of air.
As a material for containing food, it is also less than ideal; it may be inexpensive and effective at insulating food, but it can leave food soggy, fail to prevent spills, and – most concerning of all – leach styrene, a neurotoxin and possible carcinogen, into food.
For these reasons, polystyrene containers have actually been banned for over 20 years in Minneapolis, but many food service providers have failed to comply with the poorly enforced ban. The revised ordinance, which was sponsored by City Council member Andrew Johnson, steps up enforcement, even as it reduces the fine for violation. It also legalizes compostable containers, and requires that restaurants provide recycling and composting bins.
Critics of the ban argue that Minnesota should ramp up its efforts to recycle polystyrene, and that rather than impose a ban, businesses should be given incentives to use more environmentally-friendly containers. Some have also cited concerns over how much the switch from foam to other packaging would impact businesses financially.
However, the Minnesota Restaurant Association does not oppose the ban, noting that paper containers are not significantly more expensive than foam ones. Many restaurant owners have already stopped using foam containers voluntarily in recent years for environmental reasons; those who have not yet done so are now exploring possible alternatives. Though the ordinance imposes a yet to be determined administrative fee on those who are in non-compliance, businesses that cannot afford to make the switch from polystyrene containers will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Hennepin County grants and city loans will be available to assist business owners with the transition.
As Styrofoam joins increasingly widely-banned items like incandescent light-bulbs and plastic bags, some will surely balk at what they consider to be unwarranted government meddling in the affairs of consumers and small businesses. But when safer, more environmentally friendly, and only marginally more expensive alternatives exist (many of which actually end up being more cost-effective in the long run), those who have been slow to adopt them clearly need a push to make the responsible choice. If Minneapolis has any chance of becoming a “zero waste” city, these are the kinds of changes we need to make.