Schenectady County

Councilwoman weighs proposal to ban the use of all plastic foam

Dunkin’ Donuts may be forced to ditch its plastic foam cups under a new law being considered by City
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Dunkin’ Donuts may be forced to ditch its plastic foam cups under a new law being considered by City Councilwoman Barbara Blanchard.

Blanchard is researching whether it would be feasible to ban all plastic foam, commonly called Styrofoam, in the city. Schenectady has already stopped buying plastic foam cups for its board meetings and other coffee-fueled functions, and other cities have banned the packaging even in private industry.

Many corporations have gone without the foam for years — McDonald’s switched to paper in 1990 and Starbucks spent a decade developing a rigid paper cup that can be recycled like a milk container.

But others, like Dunkin’ Donuts and many of the city’s independent restaurants, have chosen to keep the foam for cups and take-out boxes.

“When we have tested alternatives to our [plastic foam] cups, our customers have resoundingly reported that they prefer the [foam] cups, as they are among the strongest in the industry, insulate coffee better than paper cups, and most importantly, are recyclable,” said Stephen Caldeira, chief global communications and public affairs officer for Dunkin’ Donuts.

Of course, most people don’t recycle their coffee cups, and even if they wanted to, few municipalities accept foam cups in their recycling programs. So most of the cups end up in the trash, which is when the insulated, leak-proof foam becomes a major problem, Blanchard said.

“It never decomposes so it’s very bad for the Earth,” she said. “There are products that decompose. The question is, how much does it cost? I don’t want to hurt businesses, but I also don’t want to hurt the Earth more than it’s already been hurt.”

A Starbucks spokeswoman said it’s possible to sell hot coffee without making a cup so indestructible that it could be unearthed intact from a landfill many centuries from now.

But, she said, it would take work.

“Our cups took 10 years in the making,” said spokeswoman Anna Kim-Williams, adding that one of the trickiest parts was creating a rigid cup.

The coffee company has never used plastic foam. Its paper cups also include 10 percent recycled paper and its paper cup sleeves are 60 percent recycled material. Even the napkins have recycled paper in them.

“We decided to decrease our environmental impact,” Kim-Williams said.

McDonald’s uses recycled paper in its containers and napkins as well. In a highly publicized move in 1990, the corporation partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund to reduce its waste. As well as eliminating plastic foam sandwich containers, it also substantially reduced its packaging, rolled out smaller napkins, began using recycled material and started recycling corrugated boxes.

Caldeira said Dunkin’ Donuts would find a way to keep selling coffee to Schenectadians if foam is banned in the city.

“If Schenectady does pass a law banning foam products, Dunkin’ Donuts’ policy is to comply with local, state and federal laws for the communities in which we operate,” he said, adding that the company isn’t opposed to alternative products.

“Dunkin’ Donuts continues to investigate and test potential alternative options to our [foam] cup,” he said.

Independently owned restaurants might have more trouble with the ban.

Pinhead Susan’s goes through about 200 foam take-out containers every week, said kitchen manager Keith Rowe. He’s researched the cost of paper boxes repeatedly — but the decomposable boxes are prohibitively expensive, he said.

Blanchard said she wants to research such costs to determine whether there are any feasible alternatives to the plastic foam boxes. If she can find something that costs the same, she’s hoping companies could use up whatever foam stock they have now and then begin buying paper.

“We know this move would be good for the environment, so that’s one plus in its favor,” she said. “But to help the companies be more environmental for the same cost would be great. This is something we really need to look at.”

She stressed that she is just researching the issue. She hopes the city’s Energy Advisory Board would also consider it before any legislation is recommended to the City Council.

According to The New York Times, Berkeley, Calif., and Portland, Ore., were among the first cities to prohibit polystyrene food packaging. Several other California jurisdictions have instituted similar bans, including San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica, Malibu, San Clemente and Sonoma County. Similar restrictions have been passed in Suffolk County and in Freeport, Maine.

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