Sat March 5, 2011

Tempest In A Foam Cup: Lawmakers Spar Over Plastic

On Capitol Hill, it's goodbye biodegradable, hello plastic foam.

For the last four years, Capitol restaurants used eco-friendly plates, cups and utensils — all part of former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's "Green the Capitol" campaign.

Republicans, who are now in charge of the House, have gone after the tableware — and maybe more.

Quality Concerns

You can get a good lunch for less than $10 in the cafeteria at the Capitol's Rayburn House Office Building. And you can recycle the plastic water bottles — for now.

But Democratic congressional staffers Devon Kerns and Emily Cardon are upset about using plastic foam plates and cups. They say the touch and feel is so '90s.

"It's gross to eat out of. When ... you're actually scraping your spoon across it and it pulls up Styrofoam, god only knows what you're eating," Cardon says.

And there's the environmental issue, they say — the plastic foam is not being recycled.

Republican Rep. Dan Lungren of California, the chairman of the House Administration Committee, is the one who dropped the biodegradables. He says the new products are higher quality than the biodegradable stuff — some of which fell apart.

"I mean, I got more complaints from members of Congress and staff — particularly staff — about forks that would bend, knives that wouldn't cut," he says. "And I got complaints about the cups — that you'd have to put two or three of them together so that you could hold it with a hot beverage."

Along with that, Lungren says, the old stuff cost more than the plastic and foam. It's fiscal responsibility, a statement of who's in charge now.

Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer worries this is just the first step toward dismantling the whole Green the Capitol program.

"You wonder what's next," he says. "Lead paint? Asbestos? I mean, there's lots of things that are less expensive as long as you don't care about health and other considerations."

Under the Pelosi plan, the Capitol has been phasing out incandescent light bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs. A Republican bill has been introduced to repeal that mandate.

"It's silly, it's unfortunate and it's not where America is going," Blumenauer says.

Could Washable Utensils Be Next?

Paper, plastic or foam, Jarrett Torres has to lift it. He's a busboy who empties trash in the Rayburn cafeteria. He used to take green bags filled with trash to the recycling room. Now, they're black bags.

"You have to take this black garbage to the Dumpster," he says.

But he says it doesn't really matter: It's all garbage to him.

Of course, this is Congress and there could be compromise. A pilot study is scheduled to start next week in the Rayburn cafeteria to study the feasibility of washable, reusable utensils. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.