School Committee Divided On Polystyrene Ban

Voters head to Town Meeting on Saturday to make their decision on a variety of items, including a ban of polystyrene products in Westford. On Monday, the Westford School Committee made their decision on whether to recommend that ban to voters.

Ultimately, members of the committee ended in a 3-3-0 deadlock on a vote not to recommend the ban, following almost an hour of discussion on the matter and confusion over parliamentary procedure.

Westford School Department Superintendent Bill Olsen introduced the issue to the committee due to the potential financial impact of the ban.

Olsen noted that the measure would likely add about 10 to 15 cents to each student’s meal, but there would be a more significant impact if bio-degradable trash bags became a requirement under the ban. He told the board that currently the schools spend just over $20 for a pack of 100 trash bags, but bio-degradable bags would cost just under $100 per 100 bags.

Director of School Food Services Colleen Wallace also told the committee that her department was already in a difficult budgetary situation and replacements for current polystyrene used in schools could be difficult to find through the consortiums currently used for product procurement.

Richard Coleman, one of the lead petitioners behind the ban, told the committee that the schools could potentially obtain an exemption from the ban via the Board of Health. And even if they didn’t, the ban would likely not go into full effect until the Fall of 2017 due to a legal overview of all Town Meeting’s decisions by the Attorney General’s office.

Additionally, Coleman noted that nine other communities have passed the same bylaw. Wallace also added that in one of those communities, Marblehead, the schools were exempted from the ban.

Richard Coleman with a polystyrene tray.

Richard Coleman with a polystyrene tray.

Overall, Olsen and members of the School Committee all praised the effort to bring greater environmental awareness into the schools. The division came from the timeframe.

Repeatedly, Olsen told the committee that he only became aware of the situation approximately three weeks earlier and was not fully sure what all the impacts of the ban might be without further investigation.

He also took exception to a statement from Coleman that the School Department had not been “upfront” about information on the ban, reiterating that he was only notified of the issue recently.

School Committee Member David Keele took exception with Coleman as well after telling the committee that polystyrene contained carcinogenic materials that could cause cancer, with some of those materials seeping into food when heated.

He saw this as a scare tactic, later arguing the point with fellow School Committee Members Chris Sanders and Erika Kohl.

Keele also was one of several members on the committee who echoed Olsen’s concerns that it would be inappropriate to support any decision without further time and information, as immediate support could bind the schools to unexpected requirements later.

School Committee Member Tom Clay agreed with this sentiment, but also indicated that otherwise he agreed entirely with ban.

Clay and Keele were joined in the opposition to the ban by School Committee Chairman Arthur Benoit, who was concerned about potential trash disposal costs and whether the move would make any impact on increasing recycling in the schools.

Kohl and Sanders were joined by Avery Adams in support of the ban, voicing confidence that an exemption would be obtained if the ban was passed.

Olsen told members of the committee that if the ban was passed, an exemption would not likely be sought as it would be untenable to transition in the middle of a school year if an exemption could not be obtained.

A resolution proposed by Keele to support the removal of dangerous materials from the school department’s waste stream and an order for Olsen to further investigation how polystyrene use could be reduced within the schools passed unanimously.