JEFFERSON CITY — A law that takes effect this week could make criminals out of those who bring Tupperware onto many of Missouri's rivers.
Lawmakers intended to reduce floating debris and pollution from abandoned foam coolers in the state's waterways. But they confused their plastics, and instead of banning Styrofoam, they criminalized the plastic containers found in many kitchens but seldom used to ferry beer and soda down a river.
The mix up means boaters and river floaters can still use foam coolers without fear. But someone who brings dishwasher-safe containers risks up to a year in jail.
The problem arises because Styrofoam is a brand name, and so lawmakers — who may have been a bit rusty with their chemistry — attempted to name the plastic used to make the foam coolers. But instead of restricting coolers made from polystyrene, they banned polypropylene containers.
And there's a big difference between the two.
Polystyrene — commonly called Styrofoam — was created by the Dow Chemical Co. more than a half-century ago. Styrofoam was used for life rafts by the U.S. Coast Guard starting in 1942 because the plastic is buoyant and insulating. It's blue and now frequently used in home insulation.
The variety used to make white foam coffee cups and coolers — the target of the legislation — is called "expanded polystyrene" and is a little different from the Styrofoam developed by Dow Chemical.
Missouri lawmakers banned neither of those foams. Instead, their legislation goes after a commonly used plastic found in dishwasher-safe containers, hinges and auto parts because it is strong and handles high temperatures. It's also a fiber used to insulate clothes and in the turf of some miniature golf courses.
That leaves the Missouri State Water Patrol at the ready for any polypropylene coolers that might come down river but unable to take any action against the ubiquitous white foam ones.
"Our officers will be taking no enforcement on that," Water Patrol spokesman Sgt. Jerry Callahan said.
The legislation that will turn kitchenware into contraband also seeks to curb lewdness and drinking and applies to all rivers in the state except for the Mississippi, Missouri and Osage — which form the Lake of the Ozarks. The measure creates a misdemeanor for possessing on rivers beer bongs, alcohol funnels and containers that hold more than 4 gallons of alcohol. Violators face a fine of up to $1,000 and a year in jail.
The alcohol restrictions — which are not affected by the plastic mix up — were included in a broad crime bill and take effect Friday.
Sen. Delbert Scott, the main proponent of the restrictions, said he was not aware of the error and blamed a federal rule from which the state borrowed. Scott, whose large western Missouri district includes several waterways, said in December that he wanted to limit "high-octane, get-me-drunk-fast-on-purpose paraphernalia" because of increased rowdiness on popular rafting streams in the Ozarks.
"When you depend on the federal government to write the stuff, that's what happens. It gets screwed up," said Scott, R-Lowry City.
But the federal government appears to have done a little better in chemistry.
Missouri's legislation was modeled after federal regulations in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways that cover the Current and Jacks Fork rivers in southeast Missouri. The national park has banned foam containers within 50 feet of the river since May 2007.
The 2009 version of the national park's regulations avoids any confusion over what plastic is allowed by banning it all: Styrofoam, foam coolers and the plastic used for dishwasher-safe containers. And a January 2007 news release announcing the impending restriction refers to "polystyrene" coolers typically known as Styrofoam.
Both Missouri and the Ozark National Scenic Riverways include an exception for anglers from their plastic restrictions. In the national park, anglers may use foam containers for bait, and on other Missouri rivers, they can use whatever kitchen container they want to hold worms and minnows.