Opinion

The Comptroller report on Polystyrene was flawed

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The Comptroller report on Polystyrene was flawed

In March, the Albany County legislature narrowly defeated Local Law “S”, a bill to extend the existing ban on the use of polystyrene in the food service sector to all food establishments as defined by the law. While most Democrats voted for the bill, the Democratic leadership and all Republicans did not, despite the extremely strong public support for this bill. This was reflected in the unprecedented expression of support from the public during the public hearing on Local Law “S” and several public comment periods preceding recent monthly meetings of the County Legislature.  Those expressing opposition to the law during the hearing and comment periods were primarily paid lobbyists representing chemical and plastic companies and a restaurant association. In addition, over 1,700 signatures (including mostly county residents but also many local restaurant owners) were collected on petitions supporting the proposed law.

As part of the legislative process, the County Comptroller’s Office prepared a Review Memo of the fiscal and economic impact of the law. Unfortunately, this memo was incomplete or inaccurate in several instances. This might well have convinced just enough legislators to vote against Local Law “S”, thereby defeating the bill.  

To begin with, the memo analyzed an outdated description of Local Law “S”, since the amended version allowed locally recyclable materials (such as aluminum or plastics) in addition to biodegradable or compostable ones. Allowing recyclable materials would result in lower costs for alternative products. Furthermore, the cost of biodegradable or compostable alternatives is declining due to the increased demand for more sustainable alternatives in the greater Albany region. Also, some of the alternative product costs in Appendix A did not bear up to fact checking.

The Memo Problem statement did not mention litter, which matters since polystyrene does not biodegrade. Similarly, the Fiscal Impact section omits the cost of litter, which ranges from public and private litter control costs to the cost of ecosystem degradation upon the shellfish or fishing industries, and even the retail and tourism markets and ultimately real estate values.

The Fiscal Impact section discusses landfills but fails to note that the alternatives are biodegradable, compostable or recyclable, and that with appropriate policy they can be diverted from landfills. The savings on solid waste diversion should be included in this analysis.

Recycling polystyrene food ware that is contaminated by food is nonexistent. There are some programs for clean, white polystyrene foam, but these capture only a tiny percentage of the waste and are not economical for local governments.

The Evaluation section touches on environmental and health impacts but lacks a full assessment. Polystyrene is a petrochemical derived from fracked fossil fuels and synthesized from regulated, harmful petrochemicals: benzene, ethylbenzene, and styrene. The processes used to produce these feedstock materials can negatively affect the people who work or live near these facilities.  These many impacts make polystyrene the target of over 100 local government bans nationwide, another fact omitted from the Comptroller Memo.

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