'Green the Capitol,' out; Styrofoam, in

Something in the House cafeterias is making diners wrinkle their noses — and it’s not the food.

“Styrofoam!” one diner said in disgust as she walked out of the Rayburn cafeteria with a salad last week.

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New cups, plates, bowls and to-go containers made a not-so-quiet debut in House eateries late last month, and some are calling the ware — made of the notoriously non-biodegradable Styrofoam — a return to the dark ages. They replace the corn-based, compostable dishes and utensils that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) introduced under her “Green the Capitol” program when she was Speaker.

Several groups of congressional aides and many Democratic lawmakers have groused about the change and are planning to take action — be it boycotting the restaurants, bringing their own reusable containers to transport their food, or pressuring the Republican leadership to dump the Styrofoam as quickly as it reintroduced it.

“This is a case of the Republicans being spiteful and stupid,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who oversaw legislative branch funding in the previous Congress. “Not only are they harming the environment, they’re taking the Capitol, instead of being an example, back to the Stone Age.”

Staffers have also let snide remarks fly, taking to listservs and e-mail chains to discuss how they can avoid using the Styrofoam by bringing in their own dishware. Naturally, a Facebook page has sprouted. Called “Stop the Styrofoam Invasion: Bring cardboard back to the House cafeteria,” the page states, “Recycling is not a Liberal or Conservative issue. Join us to urge the Republican Leadership to bring back paper cups. Styrofoam lasts forever.”

“We’re not only bemoaning what we perceive to be the 10 steps back in time that the Republicans have forced us to take, but also the cancer diagnoses we are all sure to be given now that we’re relegated to Styrofoam-laced salads,” one Democratic staffer groused.

But Republicans are countering that the foam plates and cups aren’t as environmentally harmful as the Democrats contend, and say their overall approach to House operations will be both more cost- and energy-efficient in the long run.

Salley Wood, spokeswoman for House Administration Committee Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), points to a joint House Inspector General and Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) report that concluded the composting program wasn’t achieving its goal of reducing energy consumption as the primary reason for the change.

“This program was costing taxpayers half a million dollars while achieving nominal reductions in our carbon emissions,” she said. “We’re not anti-environmentalist, but we need programs that are more cost-effective and efficient.”

Lungren is now working with the CAO to see if all of the House’s non-recyclable garbage can be transported to a waste-to-energy facility, where electricity can be recovered by burning the trash. Recycling bins for bottles, cans and paper are still present in the cafeterias.

Restaurant Associates, the contractor that runs the food outposts, was ultimately responsible for choosing to reintroduce Styrofoam, CAO spokesman Dan Weiser said. The company went with Styrofoam because it’s the most cost-effective, he said.

Even if Styrofoam is visually unappealing to some diners and lawmakers, Democrats did themselves few favors with the products they introduced under their leadership. Straws were known for melting in hot beverages, and the forks “couldn’t penetrate a piece of lettuce,” as one staffer put it. And the various waste and recycling bins caused confusion among diners, calling into question how much compostable material was actually going to the right place.

Even House Administration Committee ranking member Robert Brady (D-Pa.) recommended discontinuing the composting program for sustainability and cost-efficiency reasons in a December letter to Lungren as the House was transitioning to Republican leadership.

He didn’t, however, anticipate Styrofoam’s comeback.

“Certainly it was not his wish to return to Styrofoam,” spokesman Kyle Anderson said. “There are a lot of options that exist between composting and Styrofoam.”

But for all of the visceral repugnance it can elicit, Styrofoam is still a common material in the restaurant industry and is far less hazardous than some people make it out to be, experts say.

Foodservice Packaging Institute President Lynn M. Dyer says restaurant materials are split pretty evenly between paper and plastic. (Styrofoam is a type of plastic.)

“It’s really up to the operator to figure out what’s best for them and their customers,” said Dyer, who describes her organization as “materials-neutral.” One reason why an operator may choose Styrofoam, she says, is for its insulation properties.

Dyer also refutes that Styrofoam is harmful to a diner’s health.

“There’s not any kind of medical issue with using polystyrene foam,” she said.

Dyer said diners can’t look at the cafeteria’s Styrofoam dishware and immediately conclude that it’s worse for the environment. With any food containers, they should consider where they came from before they use they them to eat, and where they’ll go after their last bite.

“You need to look at the whole story,” she says.

The wrangling over what the two political parties think is better for the environment — compostable goods or plastics sent to a waste-to-energy facility — may get cut off prematurely, though, as Styrofoam could be merely a temporary solution, Wood said.

In “the next few weeks,” Wood said, the Administration Committee is planning on launching a pilot program introducing reusable dishware in the cafeterias, an option that could trump the previous two arrangements in cost-efficiency and environmental sensitivity. The committee will assess the program in those two areas — and continue to weigh other options — before making any permanent changes, Wood said.

In the meantime, dismayed staffers will have to accept Styrofoam — their efforts to bring their own reusable containers into the cafeterias could be thwarted on account of health and food-safety violations, Weiser said — or dine elsewhere. (The Senate, where cafeterias still use paper and plastic, is one option.)

For as much frustration as the Styrofoam may have caused, it looked in both the Rayburn and Longworth cafeterias last week as though diners were allowing their hunger to win out. Aides, tourists, visitors and lawmakers elbowed through the buffets during the lunch rush, filling their clam-shell containers with onion rings and chicken fingers and piling their plates with pizza as a cafeteria worker hauled away a giant empty box that read “WinCup hot or cold Styrofoam cups.”