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Somerville Aldermen want to know economic impact before voting on polystyrene container ban

Posted by Jarret Bencks  March 14, 2013 10:40 AM

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A proposed ban on polystyrene containers in Somerville has been tabled for two weeks as aldermen seek answers on the economic impact of such a ban.

The Aldermen's committee on legislative matters -- the committee reviewing the proposal -- agreed to hold off on bringing the proposal before the entire council for at least two weeks in a meeting Wednesday.

The proposal calls for a new city ordinance that would ban polystyrene -- commonly known as Styrofoam -- cups and containers from use at restaurants, cafeterias and carryout food establishments. Grocery stores would be exempt. The ban would go in effect one year after its approval. As currently written it carries a maximum fine of $300.

The proposal was originally brought forward by Aldermen Bob Trane, who cited the negative environmental impact of such containers as reason for the ban. Trane brought forward the proposal in December, on the heels of Brookline approving a polystyrene ban.

On Wednesday, Alderman John Connolly asked that the city's Office of Sustainability and Environment provide information on the economic impact the ban could have on businesses that would have to switch from polystyrene to paper, tin or plastic containers.

"I think in the interest of fairness that information should be retrieved," he said.

Other Aldermen on the committee in attendance Wednesday, Bill White, Tom Taylor and Rebekah Gewirtz -- the chairwoman of the committee -- agreed to table the proposal for two weeks to look into the economic impact, and to give time for the city's law department to make some minor changes to the current draft of the ordinance.

Stephen Mackey, president of the Somerville Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday the chamber neither supports nor opposes the ban, but wants to know how it could impact small businesses in Somerville. Surveying the businesses that may use containers is no easy task, he said.

"It is very labor intensive to deal with the hundreds of small business people who may be impacted," he said.

White said he supported more research on the economic impact, but anticipated that it would be relatively minor, likely only costing a regular coffee consumer a few dollars per year.

"I don't envision it being of tremendous economic consequence," he said.

White asked that a preamble be added to the proposed new ordinance, explaining the environmental impact of polystyrene.

Currently, the city has polystyrene and other non-recyclable trash shipped to an incinerator in North Andover, Lutes said. He didn't have exact figures, but polystyrene represents "a fairly insignificant portion of our waste stream," Lutes said.

Cafeterias in Somerville Public Schools use polystyrene trays and containers, and they would also be subject to the ban, said David Lutes, director of the city's Office of Sustainability and Environment.

"We're prepared to deal with the ordinance, whatever happens," he said.

Jarret Bencks can be reached at Follow him on twitter @JarretBencks.

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