Polystyrene foam food and beverage containers are disappearing from restaurants and other food establishments from coast to coast, as state and local governments enact laws seeking to curb the ever-growing amount of environmentally troublesome single-use plastics.
In New York City, enforcement began this week of the city law requiring that all restaurants and other food service establishments end their use of polystyrene foam cups and clamshells. (The city statute—whose passage was spearheaded by NRDC and our environmental allies—also outlaws the sale or use of polystyrene foam “packing peanuts.”)
Elsewhere in New York State, Nassau and Westchester County legislatures have recently adopted foam bans of their own. These jurisdictions join Albany, Suffolk and Ulster Counties, which already have polystyrene foam container prohibitions on the books.
In the last several months, the baton has been picked up by the states. Maine, Maryland and Vermont have become the first three whose legislatures have enacted laws requiring that that restaurants and other food service establishments ditch their foam coffee cups and clamshells in favor of more environmentally friendly containers.
And legislators in Colorado, New Jersey, New York and Oregon are actively considering similar bills. So is the state legislature in Hawaii, where Hawaii County (covering the Big Island) and Maui County have set the pace by adopting foam bans of their own.
Meanwhile, hundreds of cities and towns around the nation have not waited for state government to act. Among the largest cities that have adopted bans on polystyrene foam food and beverage containers are: Baltimore, Charleston, Miami Beach, Minneapolis, New York City, Oakland, Portland (OR), Portland (ME), San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, and Washington D.C.
In total, jurisdictions with a combined population of approximately 25 million people have enacted foam bans across the country.
Why the surge? For one thing, efforts to get rid of polystyrene foam are part of the larger push to reduce reliance on single-use plastics that are contributing to local litter and worldwide ocean pollution. The World Economic Forum has projected that there will be more plastics than fish, per pound, in our oceans by 2050, if current trends continue.
To be sure, polystyrene foam food and beverage containers make up only a small portion of the nation’s overall municipal waste stream. But they have been an environmental nuisance, disproportionate to their weight, since they were first introduced in the 1970s. And, in terms of the scope of the problem, everything is relative. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans have used as many as 25 billion polystyrene foam cups annually.
These containers are frequently carried outdoors and end up littering streets, parks and beaches. The brittle nature of polystyrene foam has meant that the ubiquitous white coffee cups and fast-food clamshells often break into tiny pieces, making clean-up difficult, if not impossible. Foam litter is often flushed into storm-drains and enters local waterways, where bits of foam are mistaken for food by fish and birds.
Even when these containers are sent to landfills, the outcome isn’t much better. Polystyrene containers—made from petroleum products and biologically inert—can survive in a landfill for more than a century.
It is likely the movement to get rid of polystyrene foam food and beverage containers would have proceeded more rapidly, were it not for an intense, well-funded industry disinformation campaign. The battle has been led by the Dart Container Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer of foam containers, and their allies, including the American Chemistry Council—the leading trade association for the plastics industry.
In New York City, for example, Dart spent well over 1.5 million dollars in lobbying, attorney’s fees and campaign contributions in its ultimately unsuccessful five-year effort to upend the foam ban that was enacted by the City Council in 2013.
And in San Diego, Dart doled out over $200,000 in political campaigns and lobbying fees to defeat the recently adopted foam ban. Dart had for years been squeezing the levers of power in that city to push a foam “recycling” alternative, even though city officials there and elsewhere concluded that there is no viable market for recycling dirty foam and that such efforts were a waste of time and money.
Around the nation, such industry protestations have for the most part succeeded only in delaying but not defeating efforts to jettison foam food and beverage containers.
And, fortunately, there are readily available substitutes for polystyrene foam containers that are more environmentally friendly. Compostable paper is one option. For example, polystyrene foam lunch trays are out and compostable paper trays are in at New York City public schools and some of the other largest school systems in the country. These schools are partners in the Urban School Food Alliance, which has used its purchasing power to procure cost-competitive compostable trays manufactured in the US for its member school districts.
Despite the continuing progress in reducing polystyrene foam containers, related trends are disturbing. Experts predict that overall plastics production is expected to double by 2050. And since plastics are manufactured from oil and gas feedstocks, the nation’s growing plastics consumption provides continuing economic sustenance to the fossil fuel industry.
Thus, the emerging success in phasing out foam containers is best viewed as one part of the larger battle to slash reliance on all single-use plastics and indeed to end the use of climate-altering fossil fuels themselves.