Why is Styrofoam Still Ubiquitous – At Our State Capitol?

When I visited the PA state capitol in Harrisburg to lobby for better environmental protections with Moms Clean Air Force, I found the meetings and press conference to be impactful and powerful. But one strange circumstance that left me feeling less powerful was the image of thousands of styrofoam food containers stacked up in all manners across the official capitol building cafeteria.

Not only is it the vessel for takeaway meals, but it is the only option for plating your on-site meal. Having a roasted portobello mushroom? You are carving that knife straight into some carcinogenic plastic.


Styrofoam (also known as polystyrene) is a type of plastic manufactured from non-renewable fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals. It is not biodegradable, cannot be recycled, kills animals who consume it, and leaches chemicals into the food and beverages it contains – especially hot stuff like coffee. It’s carcinogenic and endocrine disruptive and polluting and vile.

A 1991 Saved By The Bell storyline includes a protest over the use of Styrofoam cups. I repeat a 1991 SAVED BY THE BELL STORYLINE. It is 2017 and this is REAL LIFE.

For these reasons, there are actual styrofoam bans across the nation, from Portland, OR to Portland, MN. Yet styrofoam keeps popping up in some of the least expected and worst places. For example, at two major hospitals here in Philadelphia, styrofoam is the go-to vessel for all beverages. Oh, the irony.

Speaking of irony, let’s take a minute to recognize the super eco-conscious fancy utensil dispensers stationed next to the styrofoam cups. Looks like one hell of a bipartisan compromise:

“OK senator, I will give you back styrofoam if we can have these fork dispensers.”

Rumor has it that the PA capitol at one time had gotten rid of styrofoam. But after the Republicans took over the house majority in 2010, it was brought it back. Again, this is only hearsay and I am trying to confirm if this is true.

But if national politics are any indication, that may well have been the course. In 2011, in Washington, D.C., the Republican majority brought back styrofoam to our nation’s capitol building to spite Nancy Pelosi’s “Green the Capitol” program in the name of “cost-effectiveness.”

For the record, here is an image of the Capitol Cafeteria in 2010 when it was run by Aramark (admittedly no saints) and Governor Rendell is being served on a proper plate. Shortly after Corbett took office in 2011 and the state house flipped red, the current caterer took over the contract, with promises of “homegrown local delicacies.” Admittedly, my meal was OK.

Hey, Harrisburg, you want to shop Made in PA? How about the varieties of compostable serveware sold by York’s Greenline Paper Company? Want made-in-America compostable plates? Try here. Of course, the options on Amazon are boundless. But I imagine a good deal with a local wholesaler would be miles more lucrative. And what do legislators do if not make deals?

Or, call me idealistic, but what if the state capitol hired local workers to wash dishes? Don’t talk to me about water waste – I can throw you plenty of statistics on all the ways styrofoam is miles worse.

5Gyres recently launched a #FoamFree initiative which lays out the reasons to avoid it and the status of legislation across the country. I have already put a bug in my local councilman’s ear about the issue, as the claim that styrofoam is recyclable at some mysterious place all the way out in Northeast Philadelphia is not sufficient for reality.

Jessie Spano got it banned at Bayside. Pennsylvania’s highest office can fix this. (Plus, it looks tacky as hell.)

Look, I know that in the grand scheme of what we need to be fighting statewide and nationally, maybe the containers in the capitol cafeteria seem like a petty battle to fight. But there is a broader impact here.

The state’s willingness to utilize such archaic and damaging products show a general disregard for health and environmental concerns when it comes to even their own lunches! This place must serve at least a few hundred meals per day – this adds up. Making this change would not just be impactful on a practical level, it would show a better model for the thousands of visitors who come to the state capitol building each year, a magnificent historic monument and one the key icons for American democracy in action. Let’s do better.

NOTE: C & J Catering is the operator/contractor of the Capitol Cafeteria, selected through a bid process by the Department of General Services which is under the Governor’s jurisdiction. I called to ask about the styrofoam serving containers and was told that typically they do not serve hot food in styrofoam containers. I asked whose decision it was to supply serveware to the Capitol and I am still awaiting a call or email with that answer. I also left a message with someone at the Bureau of Facilities Management at the Dept. of General Services and I await a call back from them as well. This blog post will be updated if and when more information is provided.


BIG UPDATE: 9/12/17:

This morning one of our state reps messaged me this photo along with the message, “We’re back in session this week and the Capitol cafeteria swapped out all the styrofoam over the summer for more eco-friendly products.”
WOW! I asked how this happened and she said she was pretty sure I had something to do with it. Now, I’m not saying I did. Maybe they were planning on replacing it anyway, maybe someone else in management had the same idea, maybe the styrofoam company went out of business – I have no way of knowing for sure. And the truth is that it doesn’t really matter because whatever the cause, the end result will prevent the use of thousands of tons of styrofoam. Plus it will make our state capitol look a hell of a lot more modern.
The message here, though, is CHANGE CAN HAPPEN. Use your voice. Speak up. Make the call, send the letter, write the tweet, schedule the meeting, whatever. Maybe you will be the impetus for discussion or help tip an already wavering scale.
Not looking for applause here. Just comment with what you are doing to try to right a wrong – big or small, it doesn’t matter. You are powerful and you are awesome.

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