Illinois city may prohibit foam food containers

CHICAGO — Highland Park, Ill., could ban restaurants from using polystyrene foam cups, bowls and plates under a proposal that gets five stars from environmentalists but is opposed by some retailers because of the cost.

The product — a form of plastic commonly referred to by the trademarked name Styrofoam — is lightweight and good at keeping food hot or cold, but it takes hundreds of years to biodegrade in landfills.

"As far as I know, Highland Park would be the only one in the Midwest" to enact such a ban, said Bill Bogot, chairman of the city's Environmental Commission.

Dozens of West Coast communities have banned the use of polystyrene foam, although California officials dropped a proposal to prohibit it statewide last year because of fear it would harm businesses. Restaurateurs dubbed it "Foam Fight 2009" and warned that it would force them to raise prices.

Similar concerns have been voiced in Highland Park, where a city-appointed business commission — pointing to the weak economy — asked officials to delay any plan to ban the product, Mayor Michael Belsky said.

The Environmental Commission's recommendation, which will be discussed Wednesday, would extend to all local businesses, including those not in food service. For instance, a bank that serves free coffee to customers would have to use cups not made from polystyrene foam.

As a concession to restaurant owners, the proposal excludes "clamshell" containers — which feature a hinge that allows the top half to close over the bottom portion.

Yet those containers are among the biggest offenders in landfills, prompting one Chicago activist to question the effectiveness of a ban that doesn't include them.

Stacey Pfingsten, founder of No Foam Chicago, said she sympathizes with restaurants struggling in the tough economy but suggested that officials phase in their bans over a two-year period rather than water them down.

"I think we are more concerned in making the ordinance as strong as possible instead of passing something that is mediocre," said Pfingsten, who is pushing for a ban in Chicago.

A few cents extra for a food container is a much smaller price to pay than suffering the long-term environmental and health consequences, she said. For starters, restaurants could use a 9-inch aluminum tray with a paper lid as an alternative to the foam clamshell, she said. An aluminum pan costs about 15 to 17 cents, as opposed to a clamshell container, at 10 cents.

But total costs of alternative biodegradable products remain a concern, which is why the Chicago effort has stalled since February, officials said.

Alderman Edward Burke and Alderman Virginia Rugai proposed banning polystyrene foam not only in restaurants but within the Chicago public schools, which toss 250,000 foam trays into the trash daily.

The school system found last spring that it would cost $4.7 million more to use biodegradable service ware compared with the current $1.8 million for foam trays, said district spokeswoman Monique Bond.

Tanya Triche, senior counsel for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, has followed the debate in Chicago and Highland Park and questions whether alternative products will solve the problem.

"If the goal is to get PSF (polystyrene foam) out of landfills, all you are really doing is replacing it with something else that is going into the landfill," said Triche, who suggested that communities build recycling facilities.