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Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto, License: N/A, Created: 2005:12:13 16:20:07

by Phil Yacuboski

Coffee cups and take-out containers are just a few things we think of that are made from polystyrene. Environmentalists argue they are bad for Mother Nature and often litter our highways and neighborhoods, but business leaders argue a ban on them would be a job killer.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering House Bill 2560, a bill that would ban the use of polystyrene food containers in all ‘food-based establishments’ in Pennsylvania. The law, introduced by Rep. Tim Briggs (D-149) of Montgomery County, is pushing for the legislation.

“It can take that long for polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, to break down, because it is not biodegradable,” Rep. Briggs told constituents in a newsletter. “And in the meantime, it clogs our local waterways and poses a threat to birds and marine life.”

If such a bill is passed, it could mean the loss of thousands of jobs across the Commonwealth, according to Carl Mararra, vice-president of government affairs, Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association.

“I don’t think it stands a chance at passing,” said Mararra, “and quite honestly I don’t think it would have ever gotten legs.”

According to an analysis by the PMA, the state would lose 4,000 jobs, more than $1 billion in ‘total economic output,’ and more than $240 million in worker income.

“This is exactly the type of manufacturing in Pennsylvania that we should try to attract,” he said. “It’s because of all of the natural gas liquids that are here. We want to send a message to the general assembly and hit them pretty hard by sending them this economic analysis to say that this is the type of manufacturing that we want here.”

Mararra said this type of legislation ‘sends the wrong’ message because it tells future manufacturing groups that Pennsylvania is not ‘open for business.’

“You’re not going to make a product like this where the state has banned it,” he said.

He also said many people don’t realize that polystyrene is also in many other products such as plastic utensils. The industry is highly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration because of polystyrene particles that can migrate into food and beverages. The American Chemistry Council says polystyrene also cuts down on food borne illness by keeping hot foods ‘hot’ and cold foods ‘cold.’ They also argue despite its perceived environmental harms, it uses less energy to produce than paper cups.

Mararra also said profit margins on making these products are low, but the distribution is very high, which means the costs to get the products to their final destination is the most expensive part of the process.

“If it’s banned in Pennsylvania, they won’t make it here and it will cost much more to have it delivered to Pennsylvania,” he said.

Mararra is not confident that the ban will pass, and neither is one of the main environmental lobbyists.

“I think it’s a good first step,” said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, which is backing the legislation. “We applaud Rep. Briggs for sponsoring the bill and I think it’s catching up where more of the public is because there’s a growing a public dialogue around single-use plastics and even plastic straws.”

Polystyrene/Styrofoam bans are now in place in major cities across the United States including New York City, Washington, D.C., Portland, Maine, and Miami Beach, FL. California recently became the first state to ban plastic straws in restaurants and Seattle, WA has banned single-use plastics as well as plastic straws. Some companies like Starbucks have banned certain plastic items all together.

Narberth Township, Montgomery County recently became the first community in Pennsylvania to ban plastic straws.

“I think there’s something to be said for using something that is used once and then we throw it away and is with us for hundreds of years,” he said.

Masur said he has had conversations with the business community about voluntary bans or even looking to do things better.

“I don’t think the Pennsylvania economy will crumble if we ban Styrofoam,” he said.