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Thursday 23 May 2019
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Packing up Styrofoam

Is the other side greener?

Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis has said her ministry is working with the office of the Attorney General to draft laws that support the ban on Styrofoam importation.
Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis has said her ministry is working with the office of the Attorney General to draft laws that support the ban on Styrofoam importation.

Visit any one of TT’s liming spots from the streets of Woodbrook to rivers and beaches along the North Coast and you’re guaranteed to find at least one of them: Styrofoam cups and boxes, on the surface of the waterways.

Government first announced its intention to ban imported Styrofoam products in 2018. The ban was officially implemented in February this year, but still faces some logistical challenges – notably that the law intended to govern the policy still needs to be drafted, although Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis told Business Day her ministry is working closely with the office of the Attorney General to get legislation finalised.

The move was, nevertheless, welcomed by environmentalists. It was, unsurprisingly, met with apprehension from the local packaging industry and its stakeholders, including food vendors who are concerned about the ability of local suppliers and manufacturers to meet demand.

Robinson-Regis noted that there would be a transition period for Styrofoam manufacturers and distributors in TT to adapt to the new policy. The ministry, along with the Trade Ministry, is working to mitigate whatever economic effects manufacturers may experience.

“We don’t anticipate any negative effects. People are quite ready especially given the fact we have worked with producers to ensure they don’t feel any effects or fallout. In fact, we have given them a year from February to make their products more environmentally friendly,” she said.

Styrofoam stakeholders, however, see the ban differently, and a direct assault on their livelihoods.

Business Day spoke to Niall Legerton, CEO of R&C Enterprises Ltd, the manufacturer, and distributor of Styrofoam bowls, who said the ban could spell bad news for manufacturers now tasked with rising demand and competing with a new line of packaging.

“It could drive a lot of importers out of business or at least have them reconsider their business model. On the manufacturing side it might not affect us that much, but as production is now, we can’t even begin to supply all of TT with the clamshell boxes for food.”

He said given an increase in demand, it is possible some food prices could increase. Coupled with this he also said concerns among staff led to some dips in productivity.

“Styrofoam has basically been made 'persona non grata' here in TT. No financial institution is going to offer a company a loan with five years to pay back if that said company is involved in the manufacture of Styrofoam. It’s a big disincentive for investors.”

Legerton also argued that the ban could exacerbate the problems in the availability of foreign exchange as most of the alternative packaging products for Styrofoam are not manufactured locally.

Managing director of Sanicup John Chay said while he appreciates the government’s attempts to clamp down on pollution, he is not convinced it would make a significant impact on littering.

“We don’t have a Styrofoam problem, we have a waste management problem. People always talk about how much Styrofoam they see on the surface of the water, but how much plastic bags and appliances are dumped into these same waterways?”

A 2018 report by the United Nations Environmental Programme showed Styrofoam made up five per cent of solid waste found at landfills in the Caribbean.

Chay said while there was a dip in the sale of his products when the ban was announced, sales quickly recovered, testament to its quality.

“The replacement ‘green packaging’ they have is more expensive than the Styrofoam boxes and cups we offer. We saw a change in pattern but it didn’t last long. People prefer our brand.”

Going so far as to describe the marketing strategies of some environmentally-conscious companies as “economic warfare,” Chay said the road to the Styrofoam ban is fuelled by misinformation.

“The biggest concern for them (environmentalists) should be the issue of plastic bags. Fish don’t eat Styrofoam, they eat the plastic.

“Do some footwork and walk around any supermarket and see how much Styrofoam packaging they have compared to other plastics, it isn’t much. If they (Government) want to go after pollutants they should go after beach bottles.”

Styrofoam is also cheap ­– especially compared to its competitor, “green” packaging. The advantage is somewhat skewed in its favour, however, since alternative packaging products face a 20 per cent import duty. Styrofoam, before the ban, had none.

A spokesman for alternative packaging distributor, BluVerde, told Business Day, “(Removing that duty) would make our products a lot more attractive. A Styrofoam container costs about 48 cents, but one of our products costs about $1 more. The small to medium-sized businesses will absorb the cost, but the larger ones won’t buy it,” he said, and the company believes there are benefits to green packaging.

BluVerde said while its products are more expensive, it is worth its weight in the reduced impact on the environment and consumers are willing to pay extra for that, so demand for the product has been increasing.

“Customers ask about the kind of containers they get. They want to be environmentally conscious and the restaurants actually listen. And when businesses do switch, they often get commended."

BluVerde’s products are made from bagasse, a sugarcane by-product that is compostable.

The company, started in 2016, has gained a reputation as one of the premier companies for green packaging. Despite its success, though, it faces some key challenges – including maximising market share.

It also faces a backlash from Styrofoam manufacturers not keen on sharing that market space.

A recent newspaper advertisement suggested bagasse packaging was not safe, calling into question the value of these green alternatives.

BluVerde said while there were some health hazards years ago, this has changed under more stringent regulations from international regulating committees, namely the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI).

“It’s very dated information and we let them (customers) know that it’s no longer the case. We have to answer questions because the public at large isn’t going to know that the angle is going to be aimed at smearing us. We are certified and we are in this not only for environmental issues but for general health.”

The company hopes to set up a manufacturing plant in TT but if the market continues to be stymied and small, that plan will be put on hold.

“We already have the raw material, we have really good energy prices, resources and trained staff. All those sugar cane fields can be (put to use) again because now we can utilise all the bagasse.”

Styrofoam is a type of polystyrene (plastic) made from petroleum that’s both strong, lightweight and repels moisture. It’s often used to make food packaging, including disposable plates and cups, as well as packing peanuts and insulation. It does not, however, biodegrade easily, and a Styrofoam cup, for example, can remain in a landfill (or the ocean, or wherever it is dumped) from anywhere from 500 years to forever. Among its components include styrene and benzene, considered to be carcinogens (cancer-causing) and toxic to humans if ingested. Extremely hot temperatures can cause the product to start breaking down and leech into food, which is why it’s not recommended to microwave Styrofoam.

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