Berkeley, city of liberal causes and protests aplenty, is trying to raise the world's conscience again. This time it isn't free speech, a ban on nuclear arms, or sanctuary for Central American aliens - but hamburger packets.
Earlier this month the City Council voted to ban foam packaging used by fast-food restaurants in town, saying the material is made of chemicals believed to deplete Earth's ozone layer.
As many as 400 fast-food outlets have until February to switch to packaging without chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the chemical compound in question.
Despite the rolled eyes and covert chuckles of Berkeley's detractors, city officials are feeling vindicated after last week's announcement that the seasonal drop in ozone levels over Antarctica hit a new low this year.
A team of scientists found that the protective ozone shield in the region had deteriorated more than ever - and that chemical air pollution from CFCs is probably at least partly to blame.
Ozone in Earth's upper atmosphere helps screen out the sun's damaging ultraviolet rays.
``I view this as a continuation of action taken several years ago when aerosol spray cans were banned [in the US] because of CFCs,'' says Pat Mapps, a member of Berkeley's Solid Waste Management Commission.
``We're just doing the next logical thing. This is not an act of crazy people or a bunch of zanies,'' Ms. Mapps says.
In fact, she suggests that the ordinance could become a model for other cities - and notes that several other municipalities have already inquired about Berkeley's law.
The City Council's action also included a directive that the city not buy any polystyrene supplies - such as packaging materials and plastic cups - that are made with CFCs.
In a similar action in Vermont, Gov. Madeleine M. Kunin last month issued an executive order requiring state agencies to stop using foam packaging because of suspected danger to the ozone from CFCs.
But trade groups for food packagers, CFC manufacturers, and CFC users say such unilateral actions have no impact and should not be emulated.
``CFCs are used in nearly everything we come into contact with,'' says Kevin Fay, executive director of Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy, a group of 500 makers and users of the chemical compound.
But the Berkeley law, he says, unfairly focuses on foams used for food packaging, which represents only 1 percent of CFC use nationwide.
About 45 percent of total CFC use in the US is for refrigeration and air conditioning.
Another 20 percent is used as cleaning solvents in the semiconductor chip industry, while 5 percent continues to be found in aerosols considered critical for medical and other uses.
The remaining 30 percent is used in foams, such as seat cushions or insulation, Mr. Fay says.
He says cities and states would do better to adopt resolutions in support of the international CFC agreement reached last month in Montreal.
Twenty-three countries, including most of the world's major producers of CFC, signed a draft treaty outlining a phased reduction of CFC production to half the current levels by the turn of the century.
Berkeley's ordinance is ``basically a symbolic thing,'' Fay says. ``Instead they should commend the industry, environmentalists, and governments for the degree of cooperation they showed in working out this unprecedented agreement.''
The gradual reduction will give the industry more time to find comparably priced alternatives that will not damage the ozone layer, he says.
The international agreement, which imposes regulations on the world rather than just on the United States, will protect both the environment and US jobs, he adds.
The American scientists, just back from the South Pole region, say weather conditions and CFCs in the atmosphere together cause the ozone depletion over Antarctica.
But they do not yet know the relative importance of either factor.
``Some scientists may say that, but other scientists say the argument against CFCs is more compelling,'' Pat Mapps says, noting that experts have forecast deleterious health effects from loss of ozone. ``The question,'' she says, ``then becomes: Are you willing to take the risk?''