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Somerville ready to enforce ban on polystyrene foam

After several months of getting the message out, the city of Somerville’s inspectional services division this week will begin enforcing the ban on some polystyrene foam products.

The ban on the commercial use of “expanded polystyrene,” commonly known as Styrofoam or foam, affects restaurants, delis, food trucks, and other food-related businesses.

“We’re in a time when we have a severe climate crisis and we need to take steps in order to mitigate the problems,” said Ward 6 Alderwoman Rebekah Gewirtz, who oversaw the proposed ban as chairwoman of the Legislative Matters Committee. “It’s important that everyone is doing their fair share to clean up.”

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The foam’s environmental impact — including litter, greenhouse-gas emissions, and potential carcinogens — has been cited by critics.

Max MacCarthy, an urban revitalization specialist for Somerville, said city employees will be visiting businesses to make sure the transition is going smoothly.

“It was easy to have a ban, but we wanted to take that extra step and have information on alternative products and pricing, recognizing that change can be difficult for businesses,” he said.

Foam containers in grocery stores, such as meat packaging and egg cartons, are not included in the ban, which passed in May 2013 and went into effect this past May.

Enforcement will be part of a series of routine inspections starting Oct. 1. A first violation will result in a warning, a second violation brings a $100 fine, and third and subsequent violations will trigger a $300 fine.

Daniel DeMaina, a spokesman for the city, said Somerville has disseminated information about the ban in several ways, including on its website, through social media, and on the city’s cable television station. In August, informational materials were translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, and Mandarin Chinese, and sent to every holder of a food-related business permit in the city, of which there are more than 500.

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Other Massachusetts communities have banned polystyrene foam, including Amherst, Brookline, Great Barrington, and Nantucket, as a way to encourage the use of more environmentally friendly materials.

Benjamin Argueta, owner of Maya Sol Mexican Grill, said he first learned of the foam ban in August.

Switching will cost him an extra $600 a week, he said — the replacement products will cost about $900 weekly, triple the cost of foam.

Argueta is concerned for businesses that mostly use take-out containers, plates, and cups, but he said he understands the ban will benefit the environment.

“It costs more money for me, but it’s time to change,” he said. “We have to do it.”

Oliver Sellers-Garcia, the city’s director of sustainability and environment, said the additional costs should not be as great as what Argueta has experienced.

“There certainly are options that are much more costly than other alternatives, but business owners shouldn’t typically see such a markup in their costs,” he said.


Katherine Landergan can be reached at katherine.lan-dergan1@gmail.com.