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House Votes to Keep Foam Cups As Parties Bicker Over Sustainability

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Getty Images

Many municipalities have banned polystyrene products in favor of more environmentally responsible alternatives. Close

Many municipalities have banned polystyrene products in favor of more environmentally... Read More

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Photographer: David Paul Morris/Getty Images

Many municipalities have banned polystyrene products in favor of more environmentally responsible alternatives.

By Ari Natter

The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to continue using foam cups and other polystyrene products, the latest salvo in a congressional food fight over the sustainability of the Capitol’s restaurants, eateries, and cafeterias.

The use of disposable foam cups and food containers, along with plastic cutlery, in the House’s eateries has been the subject of a long-running battle between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans reversed a ban on the products after they took control of the House in 2011.

In the latest skirmish over the House’s tableware, a Democratic amendment to a $3.3 billion bill funding House operations that would have effectively banned the use of food service products made of polystyrene failed June 8 by a largely party-line vote of 178-229.

“We should be leading by example, and this amendment provides a way through which we can show environmental responsibility to the thousands of constituents who visit our offices each year,” Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), the amendment’s author, said on the House floor.

Concerns About Health

According to Moran, polystyrene is harmful to public health, requires the use of cancerous chemicals in its manufacture, releases toxic byproducts during incineration, and is hard to recycle.

In a report issued in June 2001, the Department of Health and Human Services classified styrene, which is used in the manufacture of polystyrene, as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

Industry groups such as the American Chemistry Council and Republicans like Rep. Dan Lungren (Calif.), who chairs the committee charged with overseeing daily operations of the House, deny those charges and note that the Food and Drug Administration have deemed polystyrene safe for use in contact with food.

Furthermore, polystyrene proponents such as Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) say the “ineffective” paper cups previously used are as much as three times more expensive than polystyrene foam cups and use significantly more energy and water in their manufacture.

"This product costs less and is a better product,” he said of foam products in remarks on the House floor. “And I think that’s something that we ought to do here in the government … find ways of saving money and produce a better outcome.”

Biodegradable Forks, Efficient Toilets

A “Green the Capitol” sustainability initiative undertaken by then-House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in 2007 shepherded in the use of cardboard containers, paper cups, and biodegradable forks, as well as low-flow toilets and energy-efficient lighting.

But the foam cups and plastic utensils returned to the House’s restaurants and cafeterias after Republicans took control of the chamber.

Lungren, chairman of the Committee on House Administration, said in a statement at the time that he was suspending a composting program, which the bio-utensils were part of, because of its nearly $500,000-a-year cost and because it “actually increased the House's overall energy consumption.”

As an alternative, the committee directed the Architect of the Capitol to send nearly all of the estimated 5,300 tons of non-recyclable trash produced in the Capitol complex annually to waste-to-energy facilities, Lungren said.

The Democratic-controlled Senate, the Library of Congress, and the Capitol Visitor Center do not use polystyrene products, according to Moran.

Though polystyrene foam is often referred to as Styrofoam, the term actually refers to a type of building insulation trademarked by The Dow Chemical Co. (DOW)

Ari Natter covers energy efficiency and renewables for Bloomberg BNA and the World Climate Change Report blog.

Visit www.bloomberg.com/sustainability for the latest from Bloomberg News about energy, natural resources and global business.

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