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House Republicans Bring Styrofoam Waste Back Into the Capitol Coffee Shop House Republicans Bring Styrofoam Waste Back Into the Capitol Coffee Shop

House Republicans Bring Styrofoam Waste Back Into the Capitol Coffee Shop

by Ben Jervey
March 3, 2011


A heck of a lot has been made of the fact that the new Republican leaders in the House have (pardon me) trashed Nancy Pelosi's compostable servingware in favor of good old fashion styrofoam and petroleum-based plastic. I particularly appreciated the opening paragraph of this piece from the Guardian's environmental correspondent:

A bit like the Republican party, they are white, seemingly indestructible and bad for the environment. But after an absence of four years, foam plastic coffee cups have made a comeback in the basement coffee shop of the United States Congress building after Republicans began reversing a series of in-house green initiatives undertaken by Democrats.

Here's where I really want to make jokes about the party of "conservatives" literally choosing waste. But, at the advice of my colleague Nicola, I dug a little deeper and learned that, according to a inspector general's report, the fancy eco-cutlery was costing a fair bit more than the oil-based plastics—and it wasn't saving all that much energy anyway.

Having spent my fair share of time at "eco-events" over the past decade, and having worked for and with a number of organizations that have to, on occasion, walk the tightrope between being good and green and conveniently serving food or goodies or beer to masses, I've seen scenarios like this play out before. Regular plastic sucks for countless reasons. But plant-based, supposedly-compostable "bioplastics" aren't that sweet either. They're more expensive, have a pretty high embedded energy, you generally have to truck them someplace to actually compost them, and often, as they discovered at the University of Vermont, they don't break down at all.

But the choice doesn't have to be between bioplastics and styrofoam. What about actual reusable, durable servingware. Why in the world isn't that being discussed by the fiscally-prudent Republicans? For a relatively low upfront investment on reusable goods, you have plates and forks and glasses forever. Unless they're worrying about those squirrely Congressional staffers stuffing their pockets to furnish their kitchen cabinets at home. (Or maybe they're just worried about Joe Manchin using the plates for target practice.)

And before you go and bring up the energy it takes to wash cups, I've got that covered. A famous (in the sustainable catering world, at least) study (PDF) found the break even points for different combinations of cups. Manufacturing one glass cup and washing it 15 times used as much energy as the manufacture of 15 paper cups. Reusable plastic cups evened out with polystyrene foam after 450 uses. An industrial dishwasher doesn't cost all that much either, compared to an endless supply of disposable products.

Anyways, this is all such a small (if symbolic) aspect of both the budget and energy battles that wage on now in Washington, D.C. The silverware and servingware themselves were just one small part of Pelosi's "Green The Capitol" initiative that aimed to make Congress's operations carbon neutral, and which saw most of its funding slashed last month. At least one of the few aspects of the Green the Capitol initiative that will survive the program's cuts was also, in my opinion, the only one really worth writing home about. The Capitol Power Plant was converted from coal to natural gas, after some successful rallying on the Capitol's steps by a whole horde of climate activists.

Photo (cc) from marc falardeau on Flickr

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