Gov't Trashes Compost, Brings Back Styrofoam

Styrofoam cups will replace biodegradable materials as the Republican-led House focuses on cutting other programs that protect human and environmental health.

March 20, 2011

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—It may not be as dramatic as Ronald Reagan's ripping the solar panels off of the White House, but House Republicans are once again gleefully flexing their antienvironmental muscles, this time bringing Styrofoam cups and plastic utensils back to the Capitol cafeteria to replace biodegradable ones. "The new majority—plasticware is back," House leader John Boehner Tweeted recently. (Boehner made his fortune in the plastics industry.)

THE DETAILS: With the phasing out of the biodegradable materials in the Capitol cafeteria, the House is also putting the brakes on the composting program used to turn those materials back into healthy, nontoxic soil amendments for Capitol landscaping. Take that, earthworms!


Committee on House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren, (R-Calif.) says House Republicans cut the composting program and brought back plastic to save money—$475,000 a year. According to the House Office of Inspector General (IG), the compost program also increased energy use for the pulping process and hauling to the compost facility. It's not clear if the IG considered hauling plastic to the landfill—where it will never break down—in its report, or if the healthcare costs involved with Styrofoam (polystyrene) chemicals were analyzed. Styrofoam is classified as a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

WHAT IT MEANS: We're not saying throwaway, biodegradable cafeteria cutlery, trays, and cups are best. But going back to toxic Styrofoam (plastic #6), which never breaks down in landfills? Seriously? There are much better (and safer) options. The gold-standard option would involve using reusable plates, water bottles, mugs, and utensils, and then washing them in water- and energy-conserving dishwashers. That's what we do here at Rodale. At the very least, we'd hope representatives could opt for reusable water bottles instead of Styrofoam!

And with the suspension of the composting service, we also have to wonder, what will landscapers use to amend the Capitol grounds now? Unless it's high-quality and you know where it comes from, commercial compost could be laced with human sewage sludge contaminants, such as heavy metals, pharmaceutical drugs, and shampoo chemicals. Or will they turn to harmful chemical pesticides and fertilizers to replace the soil-building compost?


Despite the House's unsustainable turn back to Styrofoam, here's how you can keep the spirit of the Capitol's now-nixed green initiatives going strong at your home.

• Opt for reusable. Investing in a reusable water bottle or coffee canteen made of safe materials like glass with a bamboo casing or food-grade stainless steel can protect you from toxic chemicals. Hot materials like coffee actually accelerate leaching from Styrofoam.

• Start an easy home-composting program. Yard and garden trimmings and food don't need to be landfill-bound. Use our easy tips to learn how to compost, which will supercharge your garden as well as decrease your trash output.

Find out how to start your own compost pile.

Read Maria Rodale's: 4 easy steps for starting a compost pile.