The California Assembly could soon vote to make the state the first to forbid any food establishment from using "expanded polystyrene foam," the kind of plastic used in disposable food-service items.
The bill, which passed the Senate and two Assembly committees last year, would likely have the support of Gov. Jerry Brown, who, as mayor of Oakland, pushed a ban on the material at the Oakland Coliseum, where the city's professional baseball and football teams play.
Proponents of the ban allege that expanded polystyrene foam containers – which are sometimes incorrectly called "styrofoam" – are responsible for polluting waterways, killing sea birds and threatening human health. These claims deserve careful examination. Improperly discarded plastic containers (as well as other sorts of consumer waste) do wind up in storm drains and waterways and are, indeed, a blight, but restrictions on consumer products should be narrowly tailored to address specific problems.
If the problem is litter, let's just enforce laws against littering instead of banning a product that, as is evident from its monumental popularity, fills a real need. That was exactly what the Integrated Waste Management Board (now CalRecycle) recommended in a legislatively mandated 2004 report about polystyrene. In a rare display of rationality by a California government agency, the report made several constructive suggestions, including the improvement of anti-litter education and making the act of littering a civil offense (to facilitate the issuance of tickets).
But activists weren't satisfied; having decided they didn't like polystyrene and wanting to rid the world of it, they demanded a ban. They concocted a tale about consumers' use of these plastic containers threatening public health. Their only "evidence" was the fact that in June 2011 the National Toxicology Program added styrene, the chemical precursor of polystyrene, to a list of chemicals that are "reasonably anticipated" to be a carcinogen.
But there is less to this than meets the eye. The NTP based its precautionary conclusion on animal studies and from industrial, not consumer exposures. The activists' claims were bogus; in fact, NTP officials were so concerned about the misrepresentation of their report by groups like those pushing for the California ban that they sent their associate director, John Bucher, to discuss polystyrene risks with the Associated Press. He concluded, "It's not worth being concerned about."
Although the NTP's listing is of minimal legal significance, the action has given new life to various efforts to malign polystyrene. For example, The Environmental Defense Fund claimed that occupational (rather than environmental) exposure to styrene is "associated" with leukemia and lymphoma. Yet the human studies that EDF used are unreliable and irrelevant because the workers were also exposed to butadiene, a known carcinogen.
It is no wonder, then, that after reviewing styrene studies in 1994 and again in 2002, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has continually refused to categorize it as a "known," or even likely human carcinogen. Regulatory agencies in the U.K. and Canada have come to the same conclusion.
Without a good environmental or health justification for a ban, one has to wonder how such an unsound piece of legislation could get so close to becoming law. The answer appears to be that it is backed by a diverse group of California's left-wing activists (both houses of the state legislature are heavily Democratic) who have coalesced to promote an issue that seemingly has little do with their mission.
Although it is easy to understand why companies like Be Green Packaging LLC are lobbying to support a ban on their competitors – shameless self-interest, or what economists call "rent-seeking" – it is less clear why the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees is a supporter. A connection between an unjustified ban on a popular consumer product and the interests of government employees might seem obscure – except that the bill would exempt food vendors in school districts and local governments who recycle at least 60 percent of their polystyrene foam. Unionists call this a jobs creation bill because it would likely require schools to hire new teams of recycling sanitation crews.
Polystyrene's defenders argue that the cups, plates and other products offer superior insulation, strength, and durability at a lower cost than alternatives, and that the ban will cost jobs in California, where some polystyrene is made. But they, too, are overstating the case: California manufacturers also make alternatives to polystyrene.
The real costs and disadvantages of a ban on this safe and useful product will be borne by consumers, who will have to pay more to keep their takeout food clean and warm. These consumers will include school districts, the vast majority of which will fail to achieve the unrealistic 60 percent recycling goal required for exemption. This will divert limited funds from actual education to the purchase of more expensive, polystyrene-free serving trays, plates and cups. Maybe the unions and other supporters of a ban on polystyrene don't care about that, but taxpayers – and their representatives in the Legislature – should.
Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and former FDA official.