Congresswoman Chellie Pingree is sending a letter to House Republican leaders voicing her objections to the Capitol's switch to non-recyclable styrofoam plates and flatware in House cafeterias.
"This seems like a small thing, but it sends a terrible message," said Pingree. "Why House leaders would go out of their way to abandon environmentally sound practices is beyond me when they should be focusing on creating jobs and getting our economy back on track."
Two years ago, Democratic leaders led an initiative to save energy at the Capitol, which included composting food waste and using recyclable, biodegradable flatware made from corn starch in the cafeteria. The green initiatives were paid for out of the cafeteria system's profits.
Members and their staffs were surprised to find late last month that the new House leadership had replaced the green items with unrecyclable polystyrene (styrofoam). House Speaker John Boehner's office announced the change on Twitter saying, "the new majority--plasticware is back."
Styrofoam takes hundreds of years to biodegrade, releases harmful chemicals into the air when burned, and is a suspected carcinogen because of the chemical it leaches into food and liquid.
"Americans know that saving energy and cutting waste is good for our budgets, health, and environment," Pingree said. "It is crazy to move backwards 20 years and use petroleum-based products when we are reducing our use of these kinds of products. With oil prices being so high and Mainers having a hard time paying their heating bills, Congress should be sending a better message to the American public then it is okay to waste petroleum-based products."
Full text of the letter to House Republican leaders is below:
Dear Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Cantor, and Chairman Lungren:
We are writing to express our deep concern with the current choice to use polystyrene products, commonly known as "styrofoam," in the House of Representatives cafeterias. While we appreciate that the CAO is working to reduce costs, there are significant health and environmental risks associated with styrofoam, as well as additional costs associated with increased waste removal. These external costs should be considered in making the decision for cafeteria products; the desire to save a few pennies should never come at the expense of jeopardizing staff, members and visitors' health. Over 20 years ago, McDonalds and other fast food restaurants replaced polystyrene foam with recyclable and paperboard containers. More than 100 cities have also chosen to ban polystyrene foam for health and environmental reasons. Adopting the same standard is the least we can do.
We have numerous concerns about the safety of polystyrene foam products. Polystyrene foam products can leach their component chemicals into the foods and liquids they contain. Leaching of styrene and benzene is documented with nearly 40 years of scientific evidence, as are the resulting negative health impacts. During the manufacturing process, acute short-term exposure to styrene can result in irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, and mucous membranes as well as gastrointestinal effects.
Over time, exposure to the styrene that leaches into food and liquids can cause extensive health effects, including fatigue, headaches, hearing loss, central nervous system dysfunction, difficulty sleeping, as well as low platelet and hemoglobin values and chromosomal abnormalities. The International Association for Research on Cancer classified styrene as a potential human carcinogen. Eliminating polystyrene-related health impacts will result in fewer lost work days and lower heath insurance costs for the House and its staff. This benefit alone should outweigh any cost savings from using polystyrene containers.
Polystyrene foam products continue to threaten public health and the environment after they are used and discarded. Polystyrene is not easily or cheaply recycled, and there are significant health and environmental impacts from the 25 million polystyrene foam cups that are thrown away per year. When disposed of in landfills, products made of polystyrene take over half a millennium to biodegrade. While in landfills, polystyrene chemicals can leach into groundwater, jeopardizing water quality. The safe incineration of polystyrene foam requires extremely high heat in specialized plants. Incineration at normal heat levels releases over 90 different hazardous chemicals, polluting the air quality of those communities surrounding the waste plants and burdening them with increased health risks and costs.
Although we strongly support efforts to reduce costs in the federal government, it is our understanding that the cafeteria operations generate profits for the House -- an estimated $879,000 for 2010. Any costs associated with composting or any of the other environmentally sound options were always meant to be offset by these profits. Those of us who are concerned about the health and safety of Members, staff and visitors feel that this is certainly a worthwhile use for these proceeds.
The irresponsibility of the decision to use polystyrene foam without considering other options is all the more egregious because the cafeteria is not merely used by House members and our staffers. The health of constituents and visitors to the Hill who eat in the cafeteria will be impacted by this short-sighted decision. We urge you to bear in mind our responsibility to protect the health and welfare of the American public, now and in future generations, and to reconsider the decision to use Polystyrene foam in our cafeteria.