Bangor’s upcoming Styrofoam ban (and how little good it’ll do)

Buried deep within the BDN’s triumphal celebration of compliance with Bangor’s upcoming Styrofoam ban was this tidbit:

Governor’s, which has six locations from Presque Isle to Lewiston, has used its Queen City location as a testing ground for different alternatives to polystyrene foam before the statewide ban goes into effect a year later, according to Jason Clay, the company’s director of operations.

After trying out various materials, the Bangor location has now replaced its polystyrene to-go boxes with ones made from a plastic-mineral composite. Clay expects the company’s other locations to phase them in later next year.

It’s been long enough since I ate at Governor’s that I haven’t seen these new composite boxes, but a few minute’s searching turned up mention of polylactic acid, which is “biodegradable under industrial composting conditions.”

So I guess my initial suspicions were wrong. Here I was thinking that there’d be no ecological difference and the only effect would be to force companies to genuflect toward greenism… wait, what does Maine have for a composting industry? Let’s see:

That helps explain why fewer than 10 food waste collection companies operate in the state, and why no companies serve huge parts of Maine, including Lewiston and Bangor, the state’s second and third biggest cities, [a local economist] theorizes. Without municipally funded programs to collect residential food waste, the market will likely stay small and concentrated in southern Maine…


Dan Bell thinks his company, Agri-Cycle Energy, would be in the same position without an expanding client base in Vermont and Massachusetts.

Unlike Maine, those two states have laws that require large-scale producers like restaurants, colleges and hospitals to divert organic waste from incinerators and landfills.

“We have seen higher growth in those regions due to legislation,” Bell said.

I was torn between two reactions:

  • “Look, another company that people will be legally forced to do business with. That’s messed up.”
  • “Look, the companies that people will be legally forced to do business with actually don’t exist yet in most of the state. That’s going to be really messed up.”

Oh wait, no, check that. There’s nothing in the new rule that requires restaurants to compost this stuff, which brings us back to “no ecological difference,” because changing the polystyrene cluttering up landfills to polyester won’t exactly create an environmental utopia.

Oh, and why isn’t Styrofoam recycled again? Well:

Its lightness means that it’s hard to collect from curbside containers – it often blows away, becoming litter. Because it’s bulky, it’s difficult and expensive to transport. Many municipal recycling programs do not accept it (a few, like Los Angeles and Toronto, do).

One of the problems of all plastics recycling in general is that you have to gather the same types of materials together and sort them by their material container code – a number usually found on the bottom of the container that makes it easy to identify the type of plastic in the object. […] While water and soda bottles are relatively clean when discarded, polystyrene used for food is often mixed with paper, food scraps and other types of plastic, like the straw that’s thrown away with an EPS cup.

Polystyrene usually can’t be recycled locally but has to be transported to a centralized plant, increasing costs to the recycler and reducing the incentive to recycle. Also, recycled polystyrene cannot in most cases be used for products that contact food because of health concerns, even though the material is usually sterilized by the recycling process.

Basically, economics and logistical difficulty, the same reasons that other article cited as to why Maine doesn’t have much of a composting industry.

Now, polylactic acid isn’t the only packaging material companies are going to switch to. There’s paperboard, for instance – lined paperboard. Lined with what? Either wax or plastic, and probably not wax these days. So again, not noticeably an improvement.

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