Op-Ed: Portland City Council’s Proposed Nanny-State Regulations Ignore Science and Economics

The city of Portland is proposing a ban on polystyrene products like coffee cups and packing peanuts.
The city of Portland is proposing a ban on polystyrene products like coffee cups and packing peanuts.
The city of Portland is proposing a ban on polystyrene products like coffee cups and packing peanuts.

By Paul Blair — New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has friends in Portland, Maine. They’ve taken his call to impose government overreach and will not be stopped by science, threats to local small businesses, or any possible costs to consumers.  The quest? Stopping the use of those pesky Styrofoam cups and containers.

On Wednesday, the Portland City Council’s Transportation, Sustainability, and Energy Committee will consider a recommendation that polystyrene (or as it is commercially known, Styrofoam) be prohibited in Portland. The ban is being modeled after a 1990 ban enacted in Freeport.

Facing a national economy struggling to regain footing, massive unfunded public pension liabilities, and the new state tax hikes set to take affect if (and likely when) the legislature overrides Governor LePage’s veto, the fact that the Portland City Council sees carryout containers and coffee cups as the plague of Portland shows just how out of touch some of them have become. Worse, science does not support their social cause.

The science behind claims that polystyrene is toxic to humans, cannot be recycled and does not biodegrade simply does not exist.

Polystyrene is non-toxic. The collective evidence shows that consumers are not at danger. This might be why not a single regulatory body in the world has classified styrene, the monomer that polystyrene is made from, as a human carcinogen. Cherry-picking health studies for political reasons, however convenient, is not helpful in a serious debate.

Polystyrene can be recycled. In fact, its recyclability can be significant in many “green causes” like “green buildings” and alternative energy production. When it is cleaned, ground down, and heated, it is an extremely inexpensive insulation material. Most windmill blades use polystyrene as a base component and it plays a role in the production of many solar panels. The material is strong, inexpensive, durable, and lightweight.

The plastic-laced paper alternative to polystyrene is not good for the environment. A peer-reviewed 2011 study revealed that Styrofoam products not only require less energy and water to produce but create as much as five times less solid waste than their paper alternatives. A study conducted by the Stanford Research Institute came to the same conclusion, adding that the plastic coating on paperboard makes it nearly impossible to recycle.

Companies can be incentivized to collect and reuse polystyrene. Walmart, for example, has a recycling program and uses what is collected for picture frames. The city can encourage the creation of a collection site, similar to ones in Kennebunk or Camden. In 2010, 71 million pounds of expanded polystyrene were recycled including 37.1 million pounds of post-consumer packaging and 34.2 million pounds of post-industrial packaging.

In addition to the science suggesting a polystyrene ban is unwarranted, it is clear that the financial impact of a polystyrene ban would be detrimental to local small businesses and increase the cost of goods for consumers. The Portland School Department’s food service director even said that “costs quadrupled when the district decided to use paper lunch trays instead of polystyrene trays, going from 3 cents a tray to 12 cents.”

A local Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owner has explained that using only paper cups in his stores rather than polystyrene ones would increase costs by $10,000 a year. Imagine that impact citywide – all without scientific proof that such a ban would actually reduce litter.

Scare tactics can be a strong motivator for regulations and restrictions, despite the negligence of economic or health harms associated with them. Serious policymakers would refuse to partake in this feckless mode of governance and carefully consider the risks of a ban on a nearly ubiquitous product.

The Portland City Council should reexamine the purported science behind concerns about polystyrene and should not ignore the increased costs on small businesses associated with compliance. Neither consumers nor the environment are served by a ban on polystyrene.

Paul Blair is the state communications associate for the Cost of Government Center. A copy of our coalition letter to the City Council can be found by clicking here.


  1. GOVERNMENT RUN AMUCK! More solutions in search of problems is just what Portland needs. In CA paper bags are mandated in some cities for grocery stores. How many gallons of fresh water are required to make paper bags versus a light weight plastic bag that gets recycled into many other products?

  2. A continuation of the theory that education does not automatically convert to intelligence! Politicians seem to be the finest supporting data that we have on this theory!


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