PITTSFIELD — Foam containers for prepared foods will no longer be permitted in Pittsfield, and few were more surprised than Rinaldo Del Gallo. Del Gallo, a local attorney, proposed the ordinance to ban polystyrene foam containers for prepared foods and drinks back in December 2012. But the plan appeared doomed following a vote earlier this month by the Ordinance and Rules Committee, which recommended against adopting the ban.
“I am very pleasantly surprised,” Del Gallo said Tuesday night after the City Council voted 7-3 to approve the measure. Enacting an ordinance requires that no more than three councilors vote in opposition. As as it turned out, following a lengthy debate that included adding amendments to the proposal and rejecting others, all seven other councilors present Tuesday voted in favor.
The ban, which will take effect in July 2016, was further honed to specifically refer only to the polystyrene foam cups, “clamshell” take-out food containers and similar products, not to the clear or hard plastic polystyrene that is considered more recyclable and less likely to leach into foods or result in litter.
As during the Ordinance and Rules Committee meeting, council President Melissa Mazzeo, Vice President Christopher Connell and Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi maintained their opposition in the final vote. Councilor at large Churchill Cotton was absent due to illness.
Opponents argued that since a bill in the Legislature would ban the foam products, the city should wait for that pass to provide some guidance. But proponents said it appears unlikely the bill will progress anytime soon and argued that Pittsfield should join the eight other Massachusetts communities with bans “and take the lead” on the issue.
Brad Verter, of MassGreen.org, told councilors during the public comment period, “The short answer is nothing will happen unless more cities like Pittsfield lead the way.”
“I’d like to live in a city that really cares about visitors and guests,” said Jane Winn, of Berkshire Environmental Action Team, referring to the products as a potential carcinogen. The youth of the city, she said, also want to know that Pittsfield “is a more progressive community.”
Ward 6 Councilor John Krol said that on such issues the initial work “has always been done locally,” not at the state or federal level, adding, “I would like to see us in that [progressive] category.”
In Berkshire County, Great Barrington and Williamstown already have passed foam container bans.
“I’m not convinced we should follow this as a city,” Connell said.
Mazzeo said she wasn’t necessarily opposed to a ban but believes the council should take more time to study the issues involved and refine the ordinance, particularly in light of the changes made Tuesday.
“I’m just not comfortable with this,” she said. “There are still so many questions.”
She and Connell said the ordinance should be sent back to the committee for further review and language clarification.
Ward 5 Councilor Jonathan Lothrop said the ordinance had been refined to include only the targeted foam materials, adding, “This is a good start.”
Council sentiment seemed to turn more in favor of a ban after Ward 1 Councilor Lisa Tully, a registered nurse, said, “I think there’s a lot of things in our history that [were found to] cause cancer,” a reference to PCBs or similar materials eventually banned after health problems became a concern. “I work in a department where I see cancer every day,” she said.
As he has at past meetings on the subject, Matthew Fisher of Dart Container Corp., which manufactures the products, reminded councilors that polystyrene foam is regulated by the federal government and has been approved for use for decades.
Morandi and Connell argued that the impact of higher-cost paper or other containers for small businesses might be too great. “It is a choice issue,” Morandi said, in which business owners are being denied a choice of containers.
Connell said the Ordinance and Rules Committee heard from a container distributor that the cost can be significantly higher than for foam products, adding that a chain store employee said the profit margin on a drink in Great Barrington is “about half” what it is in communities without a ban.
But proponents said the difference would likely be “pennies” per container, and the city would not have to deal with foam litter or with disposal of what they consider an unrecyclable or biodegradable product.
Industry representatives have argued that the foam, which is polystyrene injected with air to form the light, crumbly material, can be recycled.
Connell offered an amendment to postpone the start date to Jan. 1, 2017, and later to lower the potential fines from the Board of Health for noncompliance by a business, but all of those proposals were voted down.
The ordinance provides for a warning for a first violation, followed by fines of $25 and $50 for subsequent violations.
Ward 3 Councilor Nicholas Caccamo proposed two amendments that passed. Both were in the “definitions” section of the ordinance, one clarifying that only polystyrene foam materials would be banned and another to remove a reference to the city Green Commission that was no longer required and also opposed by commission members.
In Pittsfield, refuse is incinerated, which Del Gallo said poses an additional problem of likely air pollution when the foam is burned. He said, however, that the fact “this does not break down” in nature and can be ingested by wildlife or pollute streams or other sensitive areas was his first reason for proposing the ban in December 2012.
The council committee also had referred the ordinance to the Green Commission, which earlier this year unanimously approved the concept. Commission member Nancy Nylen said Tuesday the recommendation came after a careful review of the information and she urged passage by the council.
During last-minute discussion of sending the issue back to committee, Krol said, “If we are not ready now, when will we be ready?”
He and Tully said they have heard very little opposition voiced by city businesses but support voice by other constituents. Morandi said he has heard from business owners with concerns.
Councilor at large Barry Clairmont said he would oppose sending the measure for yet another committee review, noting that it was first proposed in 2012.
“I move the question,” Councilor at large Kathleen Amuso said at 10:38 p.m., more than three and a half hours into the meeting, which included other well-discussed agenda items. The vote in favor quickly followed.