Cambridge considers ban on polystyrene containers

You won’t find these in Somerville or Brookline. Cambridge may be next to ban them.
You won’t find these in Somerville or Brookline. Cambridge may be next to ban them.

Cambridge is considering a ban on polystyrene containers and cups, an environmental and litter-reduction initiative that mirrors similar efforts in other Boston-area municipalities.

Leland Cheung, the councilman who sponsored a resolution that won preliminary approval this week, said he believes Cambridge restaurants can find ways to serve take-out food and drinks in biodegradable containers.

“I think there’s a strong sense of community values around trying to be environmentally sustainable in Cambridge,” Cheung said.


There are similar bans in place in Brookline and Somerville, though Cheung tried and failed to institute such a prohibition in 2012. He said the council moved without opposition Monday to refer the latest effort to the city’s Ordinance Committee for review.

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The proposed policy order is now due for two public hearings before the committee determines whether to recommend final approval by the council.

It’s likely to face questions from opponents, including the establishments that rely on the durable, insulating material to serve their customers.

In a statement, Steve Clark, director of government affairs for the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said eliminating polystyrene containers creates a hardship for food vendors.

“A city-by-city approach is probably not the most efficient way to create regulation. The resulting checkerboard of what is permitted in one city and banned in another is problematic for operators,” he said.


The association recommends expanding foam recycling efforts instead.

Business owners would have time to find a new vendor that sells city-approved containers and cups, and deplete their stock of polystyrene products, after the legislation is passed.

A violation of the law thereafter could lead to a $300 fine, according to details of the proposal.

Officials in Brookline, which passed a prohibition on the foam-like products two years ago, said it’s been an arduous undertaking, but has cut down on litter in the town.

“It’s been challenging,” said Alan Balsam, Brookline’s director of public health and human services. “Ultimately, you have to hold people’s hands and lead the way.”


Balsam said there are some headaches that come with requiring establishments to change the way they do business.

“I’ll be honest — it’s been more challenging than the plastic bag ban that we have,” he said.

Brookline’s ban is more stringent than Cheung’s proposal, and extends beyond containers to include banning polystyrene cup lids as well, something Balsam said adds to enforcement difficulties.

“Banning it is challenging for the agency that has to enforce the ban,” Balsam said. “But we do have fewer polystyrene containers on the streets and in the town’s trash cans.”

Cheung said it would be worth the effort in Cambridge.

“There’s a lot of research about the negative impacts that polystyrene has,” said Cheung, adding that he would like to see the ordinance adopted as soon as possible. “And there’s increasingly a large number of low-cost … alternatives available.”

Steve Annear can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.