BOONE — Talk of the viability of Boone Town Council’s authority to regulate a ban against polystyrene foam — often used for items such as coffee cups, packaging material or to-go food containers — was discussed during the July 18 meeting.
The name most often used for this material is Styrofoam, a trademarked brand of the material. According to Jennifer Maxwell, the sustainability program manager at Appalachian State University, polystyrene is a petroleum-based product that leaches toxic chemicals into the environment and ozone layer.
She added that the material is one of the major sources of litter and marine debris and leaches toxins into the groundwater even when placed in a landfill. Additionally, the material becomes more toxic for humans when heated or cooled, which can be dangerous for food service, she said.
Many people who oppose the use of polystyrene do so because of its lack of ability to decompose. According to Maxwell, plastics and polystyrene do not completely decompose but rather photo-degrade — meaning they decompose into smaller and smaller plastic bits, but never go away completely.
Town Manager John Ward said Council Member Sam Furgiuele had requested the item be placed on the agenda for discussion. He said he had seen that some chain and fast food restaurants were moving away from the use of polystyrene materials, and that there’s “movement in the industry.”
When Ward asked if the ban would be targeted toward food-related polystyrene use, Furgiuele responded with “not necessarily.”
“While I do not have all the information on the legal issues associated with a ban for our community, I think it would be a positive step in the right direction toward a more sustainable community,” Maxwell said.
According to National Geographic, Maryland placed a ban on foam food containers and cups that was planned to go into effect July 1. CNN reported that the city banned the material on Jan. 1, but that businesses were given a six-month transition period before the enforcement truly began. While it largely affected food establishments, the ban also prohibited stores from selling packing peanuts, according to CNN.
Furgiuele stated during the meeting that he didn’t think a complete ban would be the first step, but the town shouldn’t be afraid to go that route if desired.
Town attorney Allison Meade explained that the town does not have express authority to do so, but could possibly use general police power to regulate polystyrene. General police power gives the town the authority to prohibit or regulate acts and conditions detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of its citizens.
Meade discussed the plastic bag ban that had been introduced in the Outer Banks area years ago that had been repealed by N.C. legislators in 2017. The ban prohibited businesses in Outer Banks counties from using plastic bags, according to various media sources. According to the Virginian Pilot, Sen. Bill Cook (R-Beaufort) said in a statement that the ban burdened businesses with extra costs, fines and restrictions.
“I don’t think there’s an absolute clear answer here,” Meade said. “An argument could be made that Styrofoam is a threat to public health and safety. It’s a stretch.”
Meade suggested saying that littering is a threat to public health and safety and could be regulated, rather than just polystyrene. Ward proposed that he could research what other areas were doing in regards to a ban, and replicate a plan that has worked elsewhere.
Council Member Lynne Mason recommended that the town offer an incentive program to encourage people to adopt better environmental and sustainability practices. Building on this, Furgiuele mentioned potentially seeing if the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce would be interested in recognizing businesses who put effort into becoming more environmentally friendly.
Both Mason and Furgiuele said that educating the public on the hazards of the material would be an important step.
“I suspect that there are people who are using Styrofoam who don’t understand or appreciate the alternatives that are available,” Furgiuele said.
App State went polystyrene free a few years ago, and encourages the use of reusable materials and the use of compostable products for disposable use. Maxwell suggested that business seek to reduce their consumption of materials as well as reusing, recycling or composting.
“The more we can move away from convenience-driven choices, the better off it is for the planet,” Maxwell said. “Bring your own water bottle, mugs, shopping bags and takeout containers to avoid using single-use items all together. Behavior change and personal choices are one of the more influential actions we can take to create a more sustainable community.”
The use of reusable materials such as china dinnerware, silver utensils and cloth napkins were also suggested by Maxwell.
“If you must use disposables, research alternatives such as paper and compostable options, and work toward finding a market for composting these products,” Maxwell said. “While it may cost more for paper products, the environmental, social benefits and health of the community are far more valuable.”
Ward said he planned to reach out to Lee Ball, the chief sustainability officer at App State, to continue the discussion.