WATERVILLE — Maine recently made headlines as the first state in the country to place a ban on Styrofoam food containers.

While the news has been met with positivity from groups advocating for the end of single-use plastics and non-recyclables, a handful of small business owners have voiced mixed feelings about the economic repercussions on their restaurants. Nowhere in Maine is this contrast stronger than the Waterville area, where savings-oriented mom and pop shops neighbor one of the world’s largest paper food packaging manufacturers, Huhtamaki.

Come Jan. 1, 2021, the use of polystyrene — more commonly known by the trade name Styrofoam — will be prohibited from convenience stores, grocery stores, restaurants, food trucks, farm stands and coffee shops. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills on April 30 after passing in the House and Senate. Hospitals, seafood shippers and stores that sell pre-packaged meat are exempt from the rule.

At the University of Maine, researchers are already anticipating the next steps, with hope for the state’s pulp and paper industry. The state government has kept the momentum going, with Mills enacting a ban on plastic bags Monday.

 

The ban on styrofoam package trays, which are used in the kitchen at the Palmyra Country Store, has owners Gary and Betty Lincoln concerned about the financial impact it will have on their business. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

LOCAL IMPACT

To some, the polystyrene ban is just the latest piece of legislation that “is not making Maine a very business-friendly state,” as Gary Lincoln put it.

As a small business, you’ve gotta watch every penny of every dollar to make ends meet,” said Lincoln, who co-owns the Palmyra Country Store with his wife, Betty. “With the increase in minimum wage, rising food costs and now this — it’s a losing battle to keep the line of profit.”

Lincoln said he buys about two cases, or 400 individual Styrofoam containers, a month. The store sells anything from pizza and hot subs to chicken nuggets, breakfast sandwiches and fried pickles — “hot, doughy-type things,” as Lincoln described them. He said paper containers cost at least 55 cents a piece more than the polystyrene alternatives, which he buys for 25 cents each.

“You’re talking cents per container when you look from Styrofoam to paper,” Lincoln said. “But still, … it adds up. If you go from 25 to 80 cents a piece, you’re already looking at tripling it or more … from $100 a month (to $320). To make ends meet, you’d have to pass that price on and increase menu prices, which doesn’t make your customers happy … You feel bad, but you can’t operate at a loss.”

Lincoln said that had he and Betty known this law was in the pipeline, they might not have chosen to buy and open the country store last June. The pair has managed the Waterville branch of Governor’s Restaurant & Bakery — which also uses foam clam shells —for the past 24 years. With exposure to the industry, they were able to predict and plan for increases in food costs and Maine’s minimum wage, but the Styrofoam ban “was a shock.”

“We heard rumors, and I just kept thinking, ‘Oh, it didn’t pass,'” Lincoln noted. “But then it passed. … It does make you nervous. If we didn’t manage Governor’s, it would be much more stressful. We couldn’t live off what the store makes. … But at this point, we’re still doing fine.”

Betty and Gary Lincoln, owners of the Palmyra Country Store, are concerned about the financial impact the ban on styrofoam package products they use in the store will have on their business. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

In the next year and a half, the Lincolns will hunt for the “cheapest possible alternative” and hope that demand for paper products doesn’t “jack up” prices.

Stavros Kosmidis, owner of Waterville House of Pizza, said he will likely hold off on the transition until the last minute. The pizza shop uses polystyrene takeout containers for everything on its menu, including the cups for soft drinks.

“It’s not gonna be convenient for us, let’s put it that way,” he said. “You cannot do with paper what you can do with plastic.”

Kosmidis said he understands the environmental benefits of moving away from Styrofoam but that the anticipated expenses are not ideal. He also said he was worried that paper-based alternatives will not be as sturdy as foam.

“I know it’s a good idea to ban the plastic containers, but in the meantime it’s gonna hurt us. But we’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do,” Kosmidis said. “If that’s gonna cost us extra money, then, like everything else, we’ll pass it to the customer. I’m a customer myself, and we’re gonna end up paying more money for the things we need. So it comes down to the people — they’ve gotta pay for it.”

“That’s what everybody’s gonna do,” said Kate Goodwin, owner of Belanger’s Drive-In in Fairfield, about increasing menu prices to cover more pricey packaging. Goodwin voiced indifference over the new state policy. Most of the foods at Belanger’s are already served in paper packaging, she said. It’s just the burgers, steak bombs and a few other sandwiches that will need new vessels.

“We may switch over next year, but we have not even really discussed it yet,” she said. “I know we’ll be able to replace everything that’s Styrofoam, I just don’t know what the cost is going to be.”

The North Street Dairy Cone switched from foam to paper cups and dishes this year, according to Melissa Paradis, whose parents own the store. Despite leading to “the first time in — I think —four years since we raised prices,” she said the transition hasn’t been detrimental to the family business in Waterville.

North Street Dairy Cone owner Rachel Paradis uses paper products for ice cream orders at her business in Waterville on Thursday. Paradis’ daughter Melissa said that most customers have been happy that the family business switched to paper despite a rise in prices. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

“By the end of July, we probably won’t have any Styrofoam left,” she said.

Paradis said she and her parents, John and Rachel, saw the polystyrene ban coming, and most customers have been happy about their business’s response.

“We have a lot of Colby College students, and they tend to be very environmentally aware. So they’ve asked for quite some time for us to make the transition to paper,” she said. “Some would even bring their own containers rather than get ice cream in Styrofoam.”

While the law could be a step in the right direction for Maine, she said, recycling still matters.

“I think it’s a good thing for the environment, but that is only if we’re recycling the paper because it creates the same amount of waste. (Except,) I know paper breaks down better,” Paradis said.

 

Michael Higgins stands in front of Huhtamaki in Fairfield on Saturday. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

‘FAVORABLE’ FOR HUHTAMAKI

At the Waterville Huhtamaki plant, the polystyrene ban could translate into more jobs, though officials say it’s too early to determine any actual effect.

The facility stopped producing fiber-based clam shell takeout containers several years ago, according to Michael Higgins, who represents 450 Huhtamaki employees in the United Steelworkers trade union and was a former employee there himself. But one of the “biggest sellers” made in Waterville today are fiber-based, compostable school lunch trays. Production increased on the heels of a national movement to replace foam lunch trays at schools, Higgins said.

Wess Hudelson, a communications manager for Huhtamaki, did not respond to questions about whether the Finland-based company has plans to expand its product line and output or start making hinged containers in Maine again. There are 10 different molded fiber clam shells listed on the company’s online catalog.

An employee heads home after working a shift at Huhtamaki on the Fairfield and Waterville border line in 2015. A union representative said it’s tough to predict how the foam ban will affect the business but did say it had provided a sense of job security among employees. Morning Sentinel file photo

“Right now, they’re not in a place to make any changes,” Higgins said. “It all depends on sales. If the need comes up, certainly Huhtamaki in Waterville could make any (kind of fiber-based takeout container). Molded fiber can be turned into pretty much anything.

“It’s tough to tell how this will impact the business,” Higgins added.

The foam ban has provided a sense of job security for existing employees, though, he said.

“I think there’s some security in the new law,” Higgins said. “What that actually means for Waterville itself remains to be seen, but we have a very good workforce there, a good management team, and I think whatever needs to be developed to help out the restaurants or vendors will be accomplished.

I think that this is something that could develop into more work for us; it’s just I can’t tell you with 100% certainty … But certainly it’s not gonna hurt.”

Hudelson echoed that sentiment.

“While we don’t anticipate that the recent legislation in Maine will have significant impact on our business, we see the continued trend to renewable, fiber-based, compostable products as favorable for the facility in Waterville,” Hudelson wrote in an email to the Morning Sentinel.

The plant, located on College Avenue, employs about 520 people, Hudelson said.

 

LOOKING FORWARD

University of Maine professor Douglas Bousfield. Photo courtesy of Douglas Bousfield

University of Maine professor Douglas Bousfield said that where the polystyrene ban could benefit Mainers the most is closer to the raw materials side of the supply chain. The Pine Tree State is “internationally known for highly refined cellulose,” he noted, which can be molded into food-grade packaging. Bousfield teaches in the school’s chemical and biomedical engineering department and is director of the Paper Surface Science Program.

“Anything that touches food — they like to use what we call ‘virgin pulp’ that’s never been used before. That’s good for the state of Maine because we have a lot of trees, and we’re good at making that,” Bousfield said. “Highly refined cellulose is kind of a new thing, and we think that may enable some new products to be developed and help us get rid of this plastic.”

In Bousfield’s lab, the focus is not on remastering hinged takeout containers or Styrofoam alternatives but on replacing the types of plastics consumers do not often realize they use. Right now, that’s coffee cup lids and potato chip bags.

“Everyone’s so focused on the plastic shopping bags and Styrofoam that they don’t think about plastic when they buy coffee,” he said. “But the lids for coffee cups and soda, they could also be a molded pulp product, and that would be more sustainable.”

Bousfield said his team of researchers has talked to “Huhtamaki and a few other places” about the fiber-based lid concept and is working with PepsiCo on chip bags. But he said consumer demand for non-plastic products is what will really push the needle to get production going in America.

“Most likely what will happen is, as Styrofoam is outlawed, people will just start to buy (cheaper takeout containers internationally). But if they’re available locally, that would be a good opportunity,” Bousfield said. “It takes someone with the vision — or maybe Huhtamaki — to step up and say, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna make that here.'”

A prototype of the paper-based potato chip bag developed by Douglas Bousfield and researchers at the University of Maine. Photo courtesy of Douglas Bousfield

Countries like China, South Korea, Brazil, Sweden and Finland all compete with the United States for the production of molded-fiber products, according to Bousfield. But at the same time Maine will prohibit the use of foam takeout containers, Europe will be several strides ahead with its ban on single-use plastics also taking effect January 2021. That proposal passed the European Parliament in October. Asian countries have also followed suit, with Taiwan phasing in similar restrictions by 2030.

Straws, lids, forks, spoons, knives, anything we use one time and throw away — I do believe all those things could be cellulose-based materials. But it takes some technology to do that. So we’re trying to think ahead to when maybe all single-use plastic is banned; maybe Maine can be in the position to pick up some of that,” Bousfield said.

The potato chip bag he is working on requires paper fibers to be coated with several layers — some that keep the chips fresh and dry and others that keep the paper itself free of moisture.

“Once you apply the coating, then you can form that into a chip bag and use it,” Bousfield explained. “The processes can easily be done here in Maine, and we can create a new product or jobs if we can get the investment done right.”

Public awareness is key, he said.

“It’s nice that they’re banning Styrofoam, plastic bags and other things, but there are a lot of other plastic things we need to get rid of,” Bousfield said. “We throw those away, but we could make those out of cellulose, and the reason we don’t is because people don’t know about it.”