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Should D.C. Fine the House for Stocking Cafeterias With Styrofoam?

Honda hopes D.C.'s ban on the use of Styrofoam puts pressure on the House. (Bill Clark/ CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Honda hopes D.C.'s ban on the use of Styrofoam puts pressure on the House. (Bill Clark/ CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Plastic foam food containers will be banned from use in the District of Columbia beginning in 2016, but the material still reigns supreme in House cafeterias.  

Democrats who chided Republicans for reinstituting Styrofoam when they took control of the House in 2011 want to see the old standard replaced with an environmentally friendly alternative, as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., did when she was speaker. Pelosi’s “Green the Capitol” initiative included compostable utensils and takeout trays, but it was nixed after financial criticism and was folded into existing sustainability efforts managed by the Architect of the Capitol.  

Though the local Styrofoam ban, signed into law by Mayor Vincent Gray in late July, is not applicable to the Capitol grounds, some Democrats hope it could reopen the dialogue about how House cafeterias are stocked.  

“Maybe they should fine the Hill,” suggested Michael M. Honda, D-Calif., a former legislative branch appropriator who spoke out against the GOP’s choice to begin using the plastic foam packaging again in 2011. He said then that it exposed his staff, colleagues and constituents to known health risks. “If it has no impact, at least it will raise the profile where the country starts saying, ‘Oh, there’s a big discourse and disagreement between the city of the District of Columbia and Capitol Hill. What is it?'” Honda said people would start scratching their heads and come to the conclusion, “So, they think they’re above the law.”  

Under Republican leadership, the House Administration Committee canceled a composting program implemented by Pelosi. The GOP estimated that the California Democrat’s House composting program cost $475,000 annually, and produced nominal reductions in carbon emissions — equivalent to removing one car from the road per year. An internal review revealed that composting actually increased the House’s overall energy consumption, requiring additional electricity for the pulping process and adding to the distance traveled to haul the waste to the composting facility.  

Republicans also lifted the Styrofoam ban when they took control, replacing compostable cups and tableware with plastic foam and plastic products. The House Administration Committee ordered the Architect of the Capitol to enter a new garbage removal contract. The waste-to-energy program diverts up to 90 percent of the Capitol’s non-recyclable rubbish to local facilities that produce electricity through combustion.  

Erin Sayago, spokeswoman for the majority on the House Administration Committee, said 11,000 tons of waste has been collected and shipped to the facility since the program was implemented in October 2011.  

“From there, the waste is turned into electricity to power hundreds of homes and businesses,” she said in an email. “This has been a widely successful and important campus-wide initiative.”  

Democrats fear the negative environmental effects of burning Styrofoam, including emitting hazardous air pollutants that can contribute to health problems. D.C.’s law is part of an Anacostia River cleanup initiative aimed at preventing the substance from showing up in local waterways. Other cities that have banned polystyrene for environmental considerations include Seattle and San Francisco.  

The District’s law requires restaurants, carry-outs, food trucks and other entities that serve food to use compostable or recyclable food service products.  

Rep. Robert A. Brady, who helped oversee Pelosi’s initiative as the former chairman of the House Administration Committee, applauded D.C.’s prohibition on Styrofoam containers.  

“Styrofoam containers are unquestionably bad for the environment,” the Pennsylvania Democrat, now ranking member on the committee, said in a statement issued when D.C. was considering the ban. “Producing them generates a ton of [hydrofluorocarbons], and they never decompose.  

“Incinerating isn’t a better solution, as it releases a huge amount of carbon dioxide,” he continued. “Republican leaders should follow the District’s lead and once again eliminate polystyrene containers from our campus.”  


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