Politics & Policy

Fuming Over Foam


Just when you think one of earth’s enemies is never to be heard from again, it unexpectedly reappears, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2, this time as a friend.

Twenty years ago, environmentalists warned that we were in the throes of a “garbage crisis,” the once-popular but now-debunked theory that America was running out of dump space as a result of Styrofoam packaging. In 1989, Jerry Johnson, a former Dow Chemical executive, was forced to debate the issue on NBC’s Today with two elementary-school students. He lost. “It’s a nonrenewable resource,” said nine-year-old Bridget Sullivan-Stevens.

But apparently something else is renewable: Styrophobia. After two decades, people are once again terrified of foam. Though our trash hasn’t disappeared, Styrophobia has returned from the dustbin of history.

In the last two years, one city after another has rediscovered a common pariah in the form of polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam. More than 100 cities including Portland, Oakland and San Francisco have banned it from restaurants and supermarkets. New York State Senator Liz Krueger (D., Manhattan), has been pushing for a statewide ban, and now Hawaii officials are flirting with the same idea. Los Angeles, meanwhile, is forcing residents to recycle the stuff — at tremendous expense. According to a 2006 California Department of Conservation report, the cost per ton of processing the foam is $3,320 — 37 times more than what it is for glass.

Because it is not biodegradable, Styrofoam is a nuisance to dispose of. Each year people throw away 25 million Styrofoam cups, which then make their way into landfills where they linger but do not decay. “Even 500 years from now, the foam coffee cup you used this morning will be sitting in a landfill,” reports the Environmental Protection Agency. Styrofoam is waste that doesn’t waste away.

This fact upsets environmentalists, who, though willing to give fossils and ancient artifacts a pass, abhor foam’s apparent immortality. An oped in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last year proclaimed Styrofoam to be “an environmental evil” that needs to be eradicated. This is a debatable choice of words. Whatever one’s feelings about takeout cartons, surely they are not in the same league as Hitler and Satan.

Recent developments prove that sometimes evil can be put to good use. Last summer, for instance, work crews in Marin, Calif., installed 4×8 Lego-like blocks of Styrofoam underneath a highway to construct a new carpool lane that runs through the whole county. “It’s the same type of Styrofoam you would find in a cup,” said Bill Gamlen, manager of the project. “It will last a good long time.” That’s good news. Longevity is an important component in highway infrastructure, as the Minneapolis bridge collapse sadly demonstrated.

Styrofoam’s purported 500-year lifespan is no doubt delighting to Joe Wallace, a contractor who used the material to build a house that he hopes “will be a 200-year structure.” As is generally the case with homes, biodegradability is not a plus. That’s no problem in this Styrohome, where several inches of concrete-filled Styrofoam provide the insulation formerly left to fiberglass. Dave Briggs, who bought the house, said, “Essentially you’re living in a Styrofoam cup.” Ironically, it is constructed out of the very material that critics say hinders sustainable development.

Styrofoam houses have multiple advantages. For one thing, they save money, cutting energy costs in half. Also, because of the vast amount of concrete they use, they are rated as “fire resistant,” which reduces not only the likelihood of a house fire (air pollution) but also the cost of fire insurance. As an added benefit for those who are easily annoyed, the insulation keeps out external sounds, thereby silencing noise pollution. Thus, in one move Mr. Briggs successfully avoids three things: (a) further ecological degradation, (b) poverty, and (c) homelessness. With three of the left’s biggest villains stymied, liberal environmentalists should be overjoyed.

Alas, they aren’t. That’s because they hate joy, especially when it is achieved through capitalist means. Very often environmentalists care more about how results are achieved than they do about what is achieved. They prefer government regulations to private innovation, even when the latter can solve problems that the former cannot.

This point was illustrated in an episode of Saved by the Bell. In the episode, as students are preparing to skip school the next day, the über-progressive Jesse Spano says she has other plans, namely saving the world from plastic foam cups.

Jesse Spano: I want to stay in school tomorrow. I want to guarantee the survival of the earth’s environment.

A.C. Slater: Can’t that wait until Monday?

Jesse Spano: No, there’s a plastic foam protest tomorrow, and I intend to be part of it.

A.C. Slater: Oh well, have fun. I’ll be at the beach with my plastic foam boogey board.

Jesse Spano: How can you be so irresponsible?

A.C. Slater: You know everything about the environment except how to enjoy it.

There you have it. On one side is someone so busy making plastic foam her enemy that she fails to consider how it could be made an eco-friend (boogey board). On the other side is a non-environmentalist who finds an alternative use. He finds a solution by ignoring the problem.

This exchange is telling for another reason. It underscores environmentalism’s juvenile tendencies. It is a movement made up of people who treat inanimate objects like human beings. Dr. Jan Beyea, a former scientist at the National Audubon Society, told the New York Times, “Many people may feel paper cups are friendlier than Styrofoam.” Presumably they arrived at this conclusion after Styrofoam flipped them the bird and paper cups offered to pay for lunch.

A columnist at the Los Angeles Times said there is “something creepy” about plastic foam cups, an observation that makes me think there is something creepy about anyone who feels so passionately about beverage containers.

Passion is one resource never lacking among world-savers. For them, every minor problem threatens the planet’s existence. And though everyone has problems, it is a mistake to assume that those problems are everyone’s.

In Jesse Spano’s world, plastic foam cups are “public enemy number one.” In Al Gore’s, it’s global warming (“the most serious threat we have ever faced”). In mine, it’s the dishes. Which is why tomorrow I plan on saving the world, starting at my kitchen sink. After all, they said to act locally.

— Windsor Mann is a writer living in Washington, D.C.


The Latest