Sunday, April 15, 2007

Fighting Foam with an Enforcer

(Much of my interest in environmental reporting stems from this early assignment, which appeared in the June 1991 issue of Governing Magazine.)

Portland, Oregon, has a special enforcer to keep the city's food sellers free from the plague of that illegal substance, polystyrene. His name is Lee Barrett, StyroCop.

Barrett is the sole guardian of Portland's year-old ban on polystyrene containers used for prepared food in restaurants and supermarkets. (Other uses of polystyrene are not prohibited.) Food sellers have had to switch to paper or non-foam plastics that, according to Catherine Fitch, policy analyst for the city's Bureau of Environmental Services, are more degradable and take up less space in landfills. She says some of the ban's goals were to cut down on plastic waste dumped in the landfills and to reduce non-biodegradable litter.

So far, there has been no appreciable reduction in landfill waste, she says. But the city is happy at this stage, she says, to replace polystyrene foam, which can pollute the air during production, with less dangerous substances.

Barrett has the somewhat awkward title of Polystyrene Foam Container Ban Inspector, but he does not actually have to inspect each of Portland's 2,300 food establishments. County health officials and citizens report businesses they suspect of illegally using polystyrene. Barrett then sends a warning letter and follows up a few weeks later with an investigation. Penalties for violation can reach $500.

There was some early resistance, Barrett says, including a lawsuit by McDonald's. But now, Fitch says, more than 99 percent of Portland food sellers are in compliance.

"There was an initial rush of businesses to be inspected," says Barrett. "But that has dropped off significantly the last five to six months. I now do less than five per month."

The ban's costs for the city are minimal. "It's a very small part of our solid waste work," says Barrett. "I don't think the city spent $10,000 enforcing it last year." Portland initially contracted with Barrett to enforce the ban, and he billed the city by the hour. Now he is a full-time staff member of the environmental agency, and enforcement is just one part of his job. The ban doesn't even have a budget for 1991, now that most Portland food sellers are foam-free.

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