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Foam dinnerware back on the menu

By Wang Xiaodong | China Daily | Updated: 2013-03-19 06:43

A 14-year ban on the sale of disposable dinnerware made of plastic foam will be lifted on May 1, despite concerns over the potential environmental risks.

Food packaging made of the substance has been omitted from a list of industries to be eliminated, according to an amended guideline on industrial restructuring from the National Development and Reform Commission in February.

Plastic foam is often called Styrofoam, but the Dow Chemical Co product is not used to make food containers or disposable coffee cups.

Plastic foam is one of the 36 industries involved in the adjustment to be encouraged, limited or eliminated by China's top economic planner.

An official of the commission confirmed to China Daily that plastic-foam dinnerware will be allowed on the market again on May 1, but declined to say why the ban will be lifted.

"The commission will explain why the adjustments were made in the near future and release the explanation on its website," he said.

Plastic-foam dinnerware was included in a list of products and industries to be eliminated that was approved by the State Council in 1999. One reason it was on the list was the pollution caused by discarding the material because it breaks down very little in the environment. Many experts were also concerned that plastic foam is not safe in food packaging because it can release toxins when heated.

But plastic-foam dinnerware has still been produced and sold in many places despite the ban, as it is much cheaper than dinnerware or other materials such as paper, said Dong Jinshi, vice-president of the International Food packaging Association.

Food packaging made of plastic foam is toxic-free as long as it is produced and used properly, he said.

"But the problem is that much of the plastic-foam food packaging sold and used in the market cannot meet quality standards, and some is even made of recycled plastic waste," he said.

Besides, Chinese prefer hot food, which might cause toxic leakage in plastic-foam packaging, he said.

Authorities should bar some enterprises from producing the material and intensify law enforcement to prevent harm to people and the environment, he said.

About 2 million disposable dinnerware products are used daily in Beijing, and plastic-foam packaging accounts for 20 percent, according to the International Food Packaging Association. Most of this packaging is used in low-end restaurants such as roadside food stalls, the association said.

Zhao Yingchun, a barbecue owner in Beijing, said his restaurants have been providing environmentally friendly paper boxes for customers to package food, although it is more expensive than plastic foam.

"I will consider using plastic-foam packaging after the ban is lifted as long as it is toxin-free," he said.

Yang Weihe, a packaging expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is concerned that lifting the ban lead to "a big increase in the amount of plastic waste because there is no effective recycling system to deal with plastic foam".

Yang said some organizations proposed to lift the ban as early as 2010, but many environmental protection experts opposed the move.

An effective recycling system should be established before the ban on the use of plastic foam is lifted, Yang said.

Dong, from the International Food Packaging Association, agreed.

"Government departments and enterprises producing plastic-foam packaging should collaborate on working out an effective solution to recycling the material," he said.

Wu Wencong and Ji Yerong contributed to this story.

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