The founder of a Utah chemical firm who helped pioneer plastic foam egg cartons and hamburger boxes has put his company on the front lines of a nationwide battle over polystyrene packaging.
Huntsman Chemical Corp. founder and local philanthropist Jon M. Huntsman has placed his staff, including former KSL-TV anchor Don Olsen, at the disposal of six plastic industry associations battling state and local laws banning the foam containers. The company also pays "hundreds of thousands of dollars" each year to support the groups."Our position is that this is restrictive or punitive legislation directed at one small part of the problem. It is not going to solve the problem. You could do away with polystyrene food-service disposables, but you wouldn't add one day a year to the life of landfills," Olsen, vice president of Huntsman Chemical's corporate communications, said.
The Salt Lake-based company is North America's largest producer of polystyrene used in the manufacture of plastics, including foam packaging. The company does not now manufacture foam packaging.
Communities from Oregon to Florida are considering bans on the plastic foam products, particularly those used by fast-food restaurants. A ban on polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride, which is used in grocery bags, is already in effect in Berkeley, Calif., and Suffolk County, N.Y., on Long Island. Yosemite National Park, the state of Vermont, New York City and Los Angeles officials have stopped buying foam packaging for use in their food service operations.
Earlier this year, Huntsman hired Olsen and gave him an assignment to dispel "misinformation" about the environmental effects of fast-food packaging. For example, he recently testified against an executive order issued by Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis banning all state agencies from purchasing plastic foam food packaging.
Olsen said communities and legislatures in 26 states are considering or will consider some type of foam package ban. No such bans have yet been considered in Utah.
Officials say that banning foam packaging is good public policy because the plastic doesn't easily decompose, it takes up too much space in dumps and when many polystyrene foam products are produced they release chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, into the air. CFCs have been identified as a cause of the breakdown of the Earth's ozone layer.
Instead of using foam products made from petrochemicals, government officials are buying more expensive paper replacements.
If the bans spread would it threaten jobs at Huntsman? Probably not in the short term, Olsen said.
About 8 percent of the polystyrene Huntsman Chemical produces is used in foam food-service packaging. In the longer term, if a ban-caused slack is not picked up by manufacturers who produce other types of plastic products it could mean cutbacks at the company's plants, all of which are outside Utah.
Olsen discounts statements foam-product-ban supporters make about polystyrene. For one thing, most plastic industry leaders have voluntarily replaced ozone-depleting CFCs with alternates, such as a neutralized CFC, that are less harmful. McDonald's has said it won't buy products that are manufactured with CFCs.
Huntsman Chemical doesn't use CFCs in their processes but instead uses pentane. Environmentalists argue that pentane, a hydrocarbon, is a source of smog.
Olsen said foam products can and are being successfully recycled.
Olsen said that Huntsman Chemical and the plastics industry have made a commitment to research plastic recycling, to find safer alternative blowing agents to pentane and CFCs and developing biodegradable plastics for some selected uses. However, industry officials remain skeptical about whether making plastic biodegradable is the answer for all foam packaging.
"We are not saying, `We are not part of the problem, so leave us alone.' We are a part of the problem, although a small part, and we are actively working with governments and other concerned citizens to find a solution," Olsen said.