House Democrats lobby GOP to drop styrofoam cups

The US Capitol building at dusk
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Styrofoam Cups
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Republican leaders say they're searching everywhere for ways to save a buck -- including the congressional cafeteria. But House Democrats say they've gone too far.

A group of House Democrats plan to send House Speaker John Boehner a letter this week urging him to reverse the new Republican majority's decision to use styrofoam cups in the House cafeteria. While the GOP said the move was a cost-saving measure, Democrats say styrofoam presents health and environmental hazards. They also argue that the GOP's "un-greening" is ultimately more costly.

Last week, in the short-term budget bill passed by Congress, the House eliminated the "Green the Capitol" initiative launched by former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That meant replacing the House cafeteria's recyclable cups with the most cost-effective option -- styrofoam.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Administration Committee, says he is considering more environmentally-friendly, long term solutions like washable metal utensils, the Washington Post reported. But in the meantime, Lungren pointed out that the cafeteria dinnerware composting program cost about $475,000 annually and had only small environmental benefits.

In the letter Democrats plan to send to Boehner this week, they urge the speaker to consider the negative external costs of the switch, like the health and environmental risks, as well as costs associated with waste removal.

"These external costs should be considered in making the decision for cafeteria products; the desire to save a few pennies should never come at the expense of jeopardizing staff, members and visitors' health," the letter says. "Over 20 years ago, McDonalds and other fast food restaurants replaced polystyrene foam with recyclable and paperboard containers... Adopting the same standard is the least we can do."

The Democrats point out that the cafeteria generates profits for the House ($879,000 in 2010), which they think should be used to offset costs like composting.

"The irresponsibility of the decision to use polystyrene foam without considering other options is all the more egregious because the cafeteria is not merely used by House members and our staffers," the letter says. "The health of constituents and visitors to the Hill who eat in the cafeteria will be impacted by this short-sighted decision."

So far, at least 31 House Democrats have signed onto the letter. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-N.Y.), who is spearheading the effort, says that eliminating the entire "Green the Capitol" program comes at a 10-year cost of $50 million to taxpayers. Besides recyclable cafeteria flatware, the program included initiatives like recycling office paper, water use reduction, computer power management and installing more-efficient light bulbs.

Blumenauer said in a statement last week that styrofoam cups was just the beginning.

"It turns out that Republicans are wasting a small fortune that taxpayers would otherwise save in order to 'ungreen' the Capitol," he said. "This is the definition of government waste, yet it is coming from a Republican majority that cannot stop talking about cutting deficits."