TRENTON — Legislation to ban New Jersey schools and colleges from using polystyrene food containers in cafeterias and dining halls may list Assemblyman Troy Singleton as prime sponsor, but the Burlington County lawmaker readily admits he wasn't the real author of the measure.
That honor belongs to a group of Palmyra elementary school students, who read about the uses of polystyrene and the dangers the material poses to the environment and wildlife, as well as potential human health risks.
The students from Debbie Falcone's fourth-grade class at the Charles Street School ended up writing to Singleton, and the assemblyman met with them in June and agreed to sponsor the legislation.
On Thursday, the measure came before the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee. Leading the testimony in support of the measure were several of Falcone's former students, now fifth-graders, who pressed for the ban, citing that polystyrene is slow to biodegrade and contains suspected carcinogens.
Maura Russell told the committee that Washington, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando have instituted similar legislation to phase out the use of polystyrene products.
"Who says we can't do the same?" Maura said during the hearing. "We want to be the first state in the country to ban Styrofoam containers in schools."
Another student told the lawmakers that 500 million Styrofoam cups are trashed each day, and that scientists believe they could take "thousands of years" to decompose in landfills.
Singleton said he was "incredibly proud" of the students and their advocacy.
"This proposal was brought to my attention by these young leaders, and they worked diligently on the research to help us craft it. I want to thank all the teachers and students from Charles Street School in Palmyra, who worked collaboratively with me to develop a measure that will improve our environment and make it safer for their generation and beyond," he said.
He also made some of the same points as the students.
"These materials don't biodegrade. ... By 2050, we will have more plastic in our oceans than fish," the assemblyman said.
Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, spoke against the legislation but praised the students' involvement.
"When I was in fifth grade, I don't think we thought of anything like this magnitude. I do want to commend them," Hart said.
Styrofoam products are typically less expensive, safe, and easier to manufacture than paper and cardboard products, which require more energy and emit more greenhouse gases to make, he said.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, encouraged the committee to listen to the students.
"They know what they're talking about and have done their research," Tittel said. "It's an important issue, and I'm really glad the next generation has taken it on."
The committee voted 6-0 to advance the measure, clearing it for a potential floor vote by the full Assembly.