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The Argument: Should Newton ban Styrofoam containers?

Should Newton ban Styrofoam containers?


Emily Norton

Newton Ward 2 city councilor, Massachusetts chapter director, Sierra Club

Newton City Councilor Emily Nortonhandout

Ten Massachusetts cities and towns have already banned some form of polystyrene, including nearby Brookline and Somerville. Other cities nationwide such as Oakland and Chicago have banned it. Newton should join them.

Polystyrene plastic is made from several petrochemicals, including a base of styrene, which is a neurotoxin and probable carcinogen. In spite of this risk, it is widely used in single-use food packaging for containers such as “clamshells,” plates, bowls, and beverage cups. In addition, the rigid form is also used for beverage lids, utensils, and straws. In its foam form — widely known by a trade name, Styrofoam — it’s also used for trays.


Polystyrene harms the environment. Its production relies on unsustainable fossil fuels and destructive extraction methods such as hydrofracking. Polystyrene packaging is commonly found as litter. Countless numbers of animals die per year after ingesting polystyrene and other plastic items. The foam form in particular is often mistaken as food by domesticated and wild animals. Birds may also be exposed to it when using foam for nesting material. Polystyrene does not biodegrade, but simply fractures into smaller bits called “microplastics.” These particles present the greatest long-term danger, as they displace food supplies in the world’s oceans, and contaminate products such as sea salt or seafood. Once microplastics enter our oceans, they stay there virtually forever, because they persist and their removal is not possible.

We can return to sustainable alternatives like paper and highly recyclable aluminum. Dunkin’ Donuts announced last summer it is phasing out foam cups. Restaurants and cafeterias can reduce their carbon footprint with reusable foodware.

At the same time, efforts such as House Bill 2066, co-sponsored by Newton state Representative Kay Khan, are being made to legislate a statewide ban. Two of her fellow Democratic members of the city’s delegation, Representative Ruth Balser and Senator Cindy Creem, also support it, as does Republican state Senator Bruce Tarr, who represents coastal towns on the North Shore. The more municipalities that take local action, the more likely this bill will pass. Newton should demonstrate its environmental leadership and become the next community to ban polystyrene.



James Cote

Newton councilor at large, Ward 3

Newton City Councilor James Cotehandout

Once again it appears that the City Council of Newton will be making news by initiating actions to ban another legally used product, and this time its polystyrene. Municipal government can often overstep its boundaries when well-meaning elected officials become empowered with a “ban first” philosophy and work to exert their will on the very people who elected them.

Polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, is a safe product with a wide range of consumer uses. Its light weight, coupled with its multiple applications in food services, has made it cost-effective and popular. After use, this common product creates food-contaminated waste. Despite the contention by some ban advocates that the product is not recyclable, science and recyclers say otherwise, though one can question the value of recycling polystyrene.

As a Newton city councilor, I have a duty to focus on laws applicable to the residents and consumers of our city and the realities of our waste management system. Non-recycled residential waste from Newton is incinerated in the Wheelabrator facility in Millbury. Burning polystyrene in these facilities generates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that has been implicated as contributing to global warming. But its release into the atmosphere at the levels managed at the plant does not pose a hazard to human health. This is probably the best way to dispose of the polystyrene, as its light weight makes curbside pickup unrealistic and a source of litter.


In the event we dispose of polystyrene at a landfill, that would also not pose a problem because modern landfills are able to prevent any materials on site from harming the surrounding environment. In fact, often-cited replacements such as plastic-coated paper for cups and plates create a pollution problem in burning, and will sit in the same landfill as the current polystyrene materials.

Additionally, adding yet another banned or limited item will further strain the resources of our city’s business inspection and compliance programs unless we are to add more staff. The bans generally target large corporations, and allow the smaller merchants concessions, making the overall goal questionable. Serving in government, I have learned that consumers are very knowledgeable, and that businesses adapt to market pressures, making consumer-driven change more preferable to the all-knowing “governance by banishment.”

Last week’s poll: Should Arlington further control the size of new homes and additions?

Yes: 67.5% (193 votes)

No: 32.5% (93 votes)

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at laidler@globe.com