Wednesday, August 25th, 2010
(The following column, sans links, recently appeared in the Janesville (Wis.) Gazette in response to an earlier opinion piece concerning polystyrene take-out food containers.)
I am troubled by the rise in food-borne illnesses and disease that our society would witness if the irresponsible opinion expressed by Julie Backenkeller of the Rock Environmental Network concerning polystyrene food containers were ever taken seriously. When we take home food from our favorite restaurants we should be confident that it is packaged in a safe, sanitary container. We should not have to worry if it has been infected by E. coli, salmonella or parasites.
We can all agree about the need to prevent the spread of germs and bacterial disease. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 76 million illnesses occur, more than 300,000 persons are hospitalized, and 5,000 die from food-borne illness in the United States each year. Public health organizations encourage the use of single-use food service products, including polystyrene, because they are sanitary and provide increased food safety – particularly in hospitals, schools, and restaurants where it is critical that the foodservice ware be hygienic. Reusable china and glassware depend on washing after use. But consistent and thorough washing is not always the case: A 2002 study in Las Vegas found that 18 percent of reusable items tested had higher than acceptable bacterial counts.
Reusable plates and cups also have significant impacts on the environment. They require copious amounts of water and energy to clean, time and time again. Plastic foodservice packaging conserves these resources and allows restaurants, schools and hospitals to save the water, energy, detergents and labor—required to sanitize reusables. Compared to glass, paper and aluminum, plastic foodservice packaging uses fewer resources and creates fewer emissions to manufacture, weigh less and produce fewer air emissions during transport. Check out this study, as well as what these students concluded.
What is filling up landfills? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the number one material is paper at 31%. How about plastic foodservice products? Only about 1%. What about litter? According to a 2007 study by Keep America Beautiful, “Take out food packaging [both paper and plastic]…on average comprised only 4.1 percentof the total visible items on state roadways.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates the safety of food contact packaging and has approved the use of polystyrene since 1958. Polystyrene also meets the stringent standards of the European Commission/European Food Safety Authority and the Hong Kong Food and Environmental Hygiene Department for use in packaging to store and serve food.
As the leader of the plastics industry trade association, I stand by plastic foodservice products. They help keep us safe from food-borne illnesses. Citizens in Janesville and across the country should be confident that polystyrene foodservice containers, when used properly, are a safe and smart choice.