Minneapolis Council Member Pushing Ban on Foam Food Containers

Updated: 04/16/2014 5:47 PM
Created: 04/16/2014 4:37 PM
By: Stephen Tellier

If you had dinner delivered sometime during this frigid winter, Styrofoam, or a material like it, likely helped it happen. But one Minneapolis city council member wants to ban the foam boxes to better protect public health and the environment.

What most folks refer to as Styrofoam is actually made of a material called expanded polystyrene, or EPS, foam. It's not the most environmentally friendly product -- it is possible to recycle it, but that's expensive.

So Council Member Andrew Johnson wants to get rid of it another way -- by banning it at restaurants.

Folks flock to U Garden on University Ave. every lunch hour.

"We probably get around 300 people here," said Spencer Ung, who works at the family-owned Chinese food restaurant.

Many patrons are on the move. That's where the polystyrene comes in.

"We've got a stack this big today, and it'll be gone today," Ung said, with a laugh.

Ung said they like the take-out containers because they're lightweight, sturdy, and cheap.

"Foam came to be used because of it's insulating capacity, and keeping food at the right temperature is a public health issue," said Dan McElroy, executive vice president of the Minnesota Restaurant Association.

But McElroy said the proposal from to ban the foam is workable for most Minnesota restaurants.

"We're not likely to oppose this," McElroy said.

His concerns involve the details, like how soon the ban would take effect -- the exact language of the proposed ordinance is still being drafted.

McElroy said swapping polystyrene for paper products is more expensive, but not astronomically so, and that many restaurants have already done just that.

"People feel this is the way the market is moving anyway," McElroy said.

"If they're looking to ban Styrofoam, then we should be compensated for the difference in costs of the paper," Ung said.

And Ung said it's not just about paying for containers. It's about the restaurant's paying customers.

"If they're not happy with the materials we use, then we're going to hear complaints about it. And the city doesn't hear that. We hear that," Ung said.

One industry group, the Foodservice Packaging Institute, said Minneapolis should be at the forefront of a growing movement to recycle food packaging foam, instead of banning it. FPI also said Minneapolis could choose to be part of a larger solution, saying, "The use of polystyrene with recycled content is on the rise in foodservice packaging, but the industry is hitting a snag - there's just not enough supply of recovered material to meet the industry's demands. Banning polystyrene in Minneapolis would further squeeze this growing market."

But Johnson said recycling polystyrene would be too expensive for the city. He adds that the material has to be cleaned before it can be recycled, making recycling even less feasible. He also downplays the possibility that switching to paper products would be burdensome for restaurants, citing the example of San Francisco's ban, and the fact that no restaurants took advantage of a financial hardship provision included in that city's ban.

About 100 cities across the country have enacted bans on polystyrene food containers. Most are in California, but New York City just passed one a few months ago. Minneapolis would be the first city in Minnesota to ban them.

Photo: KSTP/Chad Nelson

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