From Coffee Cups to Climate Change, Do Local Efforts Really Matter?

Plastic bag and Styrofoam bans may seem like small potatoes. But local legislation often inspires bigger fixes.

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It happened just before Thanksgiving, around the same time as the demise of that other indestructible American bounty, the Hostess Twinkie: the town of Brookline voted to ban the use of Styrofoam for takeout food containers and beverages.

The local TV news was all over it, revealing the cultural fissures of sustainability – interviewing customers outside Dunkin’ Donuts (but not Starbucks, which dispenses drinks in recycled paper cups). Most with steaming cups of coffee in hand scoffed – here goes the famously progressive community, trying to regulate our lives. Government, hands off our coffee cups!

The talk-radio jokes were easily anticipated. Maybe every resident should get a standard-issue re-usable cup. If you drive into Brookline from Boston with Styrofoam in the cup holder, could you be pulled over for carrying contraband? And what are you doing driving and not taking the T, anyway?

What could be next? Plastic grocery bags? Actually, yes. That topic is already being considered for another town meeting in the near future – though these days, forbidding disposable non-compostable sacks is hardly original. Many a supermarket shopper clambers out of a Prius with canvas tote bags already.

A ban on polystyrene food and beverage containers was first passed by Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1990. That served as inspiration for Brookline, and is part of the hoped-for viral nature of these initiatives: one town does it, and the next one over adopts it as well.

The ban got me thinking about local governments and sustainability, and what economists refer to as spillovers – externalities that cross boundaries in terms of impact. A classic case is the factory smokestack in one jurisdiction spewing pollution that drifts over to neighboring communities. The concept is especially relevant in what has been described as the ultimate externality: climate change. Let’s say one city or town – or even a region or an entire state, such as California – adopts climate action plans that require reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but the city or state next door does not. In that case, there’s an unequal distribution of costs – but everyone benefits, creating an incentive for others to be "free riders" on the efforts of a few.

On the global scale, the same concerns are evident in national GHG reduction goals – the politically super-charged calibration of the U.S. and China or India equally doing their part. So what if Brookline bans Styrofoam and Boston and Newton and Framingham don’t? It seems symbolic, like declaring a leafy suburb a nuclear free zone (yes, something else Brookline has put to the voters), but then again, it could catch on.

In the absence of a statewide ban, it’s more the act of local government, self-contained, following its own path. In Brookline, part of the rationale was that residents cannot put Styrofoam in curbside recycling bins. Instead it must be stockpiled and dropped off at the Department of Public Works on designated days. The town is committed to reducing the waste stream to landfills by making recycling as easy as possible, and it’s working: the royal blue recycling bins outnumber garbage cans on most streets on trash day. So the solution was to ban the troublesome material at the source.

To that end, clearly there needs to be further research, on the recycling characteristics polystyrene, the energy required for its manufacture and the energy it takes for recycling. Or a proper study on how much warmer Styrofoam keeps a beverage versus a paper cup – with a regression to account for temperature extremes, of course.

In all seriousness, the nesting of scales – from the building to the neighborhood to the town, from the region to the state to the nation and the big leap to the planet – is a big part of how sustainability advances. And local government, the engine of democracy, is a critical link in that chain.

In this view, cities and regions can only do what they feel is right on climate mitigation – and hope that others act as well. Call it policy contagion, or a more positive kind of spillover, while we all keep our coffee cup lids on tight.

Photo credit: neko92vl /Shutterstock

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