Representatives from Dunkin' Donuts, the Dart Container Corporation and the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group, among others, spoke out Wednesday night to opposed a proposed ban on polystyrene takeout food containers in Somerville.
Meanwhile, several aldermen, residents, and representatives from groups such as Somerville Climate Action and 350 Massachusetts spoke in favor of the ban, while a few members of the local business community seemed skeptical about the proposal.
Dunkin' Donuts, others, oppose polystyrene ban
At a public hearing before the Board of Aldermen's legislative matters committee, Dunkin' Donuts argued it's been "working hard" to find a replacement for polystyrene—commonly known as Styrofoam—cups, but hasn't found one yet, according to Christine Riley, director of corporate social responsibly at Dunkin' Brands, based in Canton.
Riley argued that paper cups are not accepted as a recyclable item in most communities around the county because they contain a leak-resistant covering. She acknowledged, however, that paper cups "are accepted in Somerville" as a recyclable item.
She said the coffee giant has three criteria it's looking for in a non-foam cup: that it complies with food safety standards, that it's recyclable and that it's affordable for franchises.
"[We] haven't found a straightforward solution," Riley said. She also said Dunkin' Donuts has "engaged an outside design firm" to come up with a replacement cup and has launched a pilot in-store recycling program in five stores south of Boston that it hopes to expand in coming months.
Tom Leone, who owns three Dunkin' Donuts stores in Somerville—on Middlesex Avenue near the Somerville courthouse, at the Stop & Shop and at the Hess Gas station on McGrath Highway—said, "Customers don't like paper. It burns their hands when they pick it up." Although small Dunkin' Donuts coffees already come in paper cups, some customers ask for them in foam cups, he said.
Ray Ehrlich, regional manager for government affairs and the environment at the Dart Container Corporation, which makes polystyrene cups, said there's a lot of "misinformation and untruths" about the cups.
"This material is recyclable," he said.
He said, "A ban will not get you where you want to be."
David and Barbara Sherman, who run ReFoamIt, a polystyrene recycling operation in Ayer, also opposed the ban. "Why ban something that can be recycled?" Barbara Sherman asked after showing the aldermen examples of things made from recycled polystyrene, including a picture frame and pens.
Aldermen strike back with pointed questions
Many aldermen at the meeting grilled the industry representatives about polystyrene cups.
Alderman At-Large Dennis Sullivan noted Starbucks uses paper cups, and he asked, "How can they get away with paper cups and you're saying it's not popular? How can they do it and you can't?"
Riley responded that Starbucks serves a cup its customers like, but Dunkin Donuts customers like polystyrene cups. She said, "To switch … doesn't make much sense from an environmental standpoint" because many communities don't recycle paper cups.
Ward 7 Alderman Robert Trane, who proposed the polystyrene ban, talked about the "huge concern with outgas and chemicals" from foam cups. Other coffee companies have paper cups with paper sleeves, and "it behooves you and your organization" to do the same, he said.
He later commented, "It sounds like you're trying to do something [about foam cups], but it sounds a little late to the dance."
Alderman At-Large William White said, "It's not like Somerville is alone here." He noted other communities, such as Brookline, have banned foam cups, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also proposed a ban.
Riley responded, "Paper cups are not recyclable. Period. They're recyclable in the same way foam is."
Later in the hearing, White held up a paper cup and said, "Right now in Somerville this is recyclable ... it would not end up in a landfill."
Although Somerville's recycling guidelines don't mention paper coffee cups specifically, Cambridge, which uses the same recycling system as Somerville—Casella's Zero-Sort recycling—says empty paper coffee cups can be recycled.
Some residents support a ban
A handful of residents spoke at the hearing, mostly to support the polystyrene ban.
It's a "regressive material," said Julia Jonas-Day, a Somerville resident from 350 Massachusetts, a group working against climate change.
"Styrofoam recycling is not a closed loop cycle … Dunkin' Donuts cups are not what's made from recycled Styrofoam," she said. As a result, "We're not reducing the market demand on petroleum."
Dori Mazor, another resident, said polystyrene "has been banned in Seattle, Portland, Brookline [and] Great Barrington," with, as White noted, New York City exploring a ban.
Melissa Lowitz of Somerville Climate Action said, "Many businesses have been successful using non-polystyrene containers."
Local business community a little skeptical
Stephen Mackey, president and CEO of the Somerville Chamber of Commerce, said the proposed ban "raises questions of science, economics and the efficacy of city-by-city regulations." He hoped the proposed ban "receives further study and discussion."
Jim Kontos, owner of McKinnon's Meat Market in Davis Square, was concerned the ban might affect the way he packages meats, though Trane noted the proposed ban would affect takeout food, not groceries.
Grover Taylor, owner of Ball Square's Eat at Jumbo's restaurant, spoke about his experience. Eat and Jumbos is part of the Sustainable Business Leader Program, an environmental initiative, and the restaurant actively pursues ways to make itself more environmentally friendly.
Taylor said, "I'm someone who can testify to the cost" of using non-polystyrene containers. He said, talking about the materials alternative containers are made from, "I've tried aluminum, corn starch, wheat, fiber." None work as well as polystyrene, he said.
"If you've got a solution, my ears are open," he added.
Schools use 800,000 polystyrene trays a year
Pat Durette, from Somerville Public Schools, said, "All but one of our schools use Styrofoam trays to serve both breakfast and lunch."
In all, she estimated the school uses 800,000 polystyrene trays during the school year, plus another 85,000 during the summer breakfast and lunch program.
A polystyrene tray costs the school district $0.03 a piece, and biodegradable trays cost $0.08. Durette said switching to all biodegradable trays would cost the school district an extra $40,000 a year.
Switching to washable trays would cost about $50,000 up front to pay for the trays and drying racks.
Matter stays in committee
The legislative matters committee will continue to discuss the proposed ban at upcoming meetings.