Fayetteville’s recently implemented styrofoam ban seems like a radical first step toward citywide sustainability. However, as a long-term solution, it could actually do more damage to the environment and unnecessarily put financial pressure on small businesses. 

This year marked the beginning of a widespread war on styrofoam products across the globe. With Maine being the first state to place statewide restrictions on styrofoam products in May, many states and towns, including Fayetteville, have been quick to follow suit.

Fayetteville City Council members voted unanimously this summer to ban the purchase of styrofoam products with city funds, effectively curbing its use in city facilities and on city-owned property. Last month, the council expanded the styrofoam ban to the entire city, meaning businesses like restaurants and coffee shops can no longer serve using styrofoam cups, plates, or takeout containers.

Within the city, the biggest backlash the council has faced has come from advocates for small businesses.

Paper products and compostable plastic products can cost double what styrofoam products would cost, which will hit local businesses particularly hard. To compensate for the ban, which goes into effect in May of 2020, many small business owners are already anticipating an increase in operation costs.

Disregarding the ban is not an alternative either, as the City’s imposed penalty for businesses that do not comply is up to $50 per day.

To put it simply, styrofoam does not decompose. Its lifespan in a landfill is hundreds, potentially thousands of years long. The increasing styrofoam waste buildup is incredibly detrimental to the planet.

The solution to the styrofoam waste buildup, however, may not be a targeted ban.

Completely contrary to its intent, the styrofoam ban could lead to an increase in waste. For example, after the city of San Francisco banned single-use food containers in 2008, an increase in overall, non-foam litter increased significantly.

Styrofoam alternatives, like cardboard and other heavy paper packaging, can leave a greater carbon footprint behind than compost-resistant styrofoam itself. Other forms of packaging might biodegrade more quickly, but can still leave greater water and air pollution in their wake.

For example, styrofoam cups can be replaced with mostly compostable polycoated paper cups, best recognized as the hot drink cups at Starbucks. Paper products, however, are heavier than styrofoam, and the environmental impact of additional fossil fuel required to transport them outweighs their eventual biodegradability.

Because of the plastic coated interior of polycoated paper products, they can take up to 20 years to fully decompose and require special equipment to be recycled. In this scenario, choosing an alternative material also means choosing an alternative method of harming the environment.

An incredibly effective styrofoam alternative, however, is actually already in use on campus. Hill Coffee Co. serves cold drinks in Eco Products brand Green Stripe cups. These are drastically better for the environment than polycoated paper or plastic products, as they can biodegrade in 60 days at most, as opposed to the 450 years it would take a traditional plastic cup to biodegrade.

However, Fayetteville does not have a municipal composting program for these cups and other biowaste, like food scraps, to be composted in. On-campus residents and students who live in apartments do not have a place for a personal compost pile. This means that these compostable cups largely end up tossed in a waste bin and tied up in a plastic garbage bag. The garbage bag will take anywhere between 10 and 20 years to decompose before the cup will even begin to biodegrade. In the absence of a municipal recycling program, effective styrofoam alternatives do not even have a chance to keep more single-use containers out of landfills.

Roughly 30% of the waste generated in Fayetteville has been identified as compostable, organic waste. After San Francisco implemented a municipal composting program in 2004, the amount of waste sent to landfill was reduced by about 24%. These numbers suggest Fayetteville would benefit from a citywide composting program.

As of now, Fayetteville does not have a citywide composting program or widespread facilitation of personal composting solutions, leaving individual residents and families responsible to compost their own biowaste. Even at our recycling centers, which have expanded capacities over curbside recycling bins, we can only recycle #1 and #2 plastics, in spite of the fact that #3 to #7 plastics are all recyclable.

Although a styrofoam ban might not be a long-term solution to curbing food container waste in Fayetteville, it is heartening to see such widespread support for citywide sustainability. New solutions, like a comprehensive recycling system and accessible waste management education programs for families would likely be able to garner the same support.

Because of the potential environmental drawbacks, focusing city resources on the expanding recycling and educating residents would ultimately be more effective than a targeted styrofoam ban. Calling residents to take ownership of their waste and refuse single-use containers for reusable ones would help reduce the need for targeted material bans overall.

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