Latest State Effort to Ban ‘Styrofoam’ Will Target Food Containers, Packing Peanuts

A coffee cup made from polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam, lies on the side of a road, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, in Augusta, Maine. Lawmakers in the state banned many foam food containers earlier this year. New York could soon follow suit.

A coffee cup made from polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam, lies on the side of a road, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, in Augusta, Maine. Lawmakers in the state banned many foam food containers earlier this year. New York could soon follow suit. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

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New York's governor is backing the plan. Lawmakers in three other states passed similar foam restrictions earlier this year.

Foam take-out food containers and the sale of foam packing peanuts would be banned in New York state under a proposal Gov. Andrew Cuomo put forward this week.

If New York follows through with the governor’s plan, it would join three other states—Maine, Maryland and Vermont—that have enacted similar statewide restrictions this year on the use of food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene foam, often called Styrofoam.

(Styrofoam is actually a brand-name product and is commonly used in construction as insulation material, rather than in food packaging.) 

Cuomo’s office said his proposed restrictions on disposable foam products “would be the strongest statewide ban” in the U.S. As planned, it would go into effect by Jan. 1, 2022. 

The regulation would prohibit prepared food and beverage containers used by restaurants, caterers, food trucks, retail food stores, delis and groceries, as well as packing peanut sales. 

There would be exemptions for packaging used for some items, like raw meat, fish and eggs, as well as prepackaged food sealed prior to receipt at restaurants and other establishments.

Local governments and some states in recent years have adopted a number of new laws aimed at cutting down on waste and pollution from foam and plastic products, which do not biodegrade like paper or cardboard and can linger for centuries after being discarded by consumers.

When the materials do break down into small pieces and end up in the ocean and other bodies of water they can harm wildlife. In addition to problems with litter and pollution, there are also concerns about the possible health risks to humans from some plastics.

New York state lawmakers earlier this year took action to ban most types of single-use plastic bags. Cuomo, a Democrat, also pushed for that law, which takes effect March 1, 2020. As of Nov. 1, at least seven other states had banned single-use plastic bags as well.

Earlier this year, New York City began enforcing prohibitions on foam food containers and packing peanuts. Those restrictions were waylaid for years by a legal challenge.

Opposition to the foam bans has mainly come from the chemical industry and some in the restaurant and retail sectors. In general, critics say that doing away with foam products raises costs and other burdens for businesses, while making only a limited dent in pollution.

“Banning individual products does not reduce the amount of waste, it merely changes the composition of the waste cycle,” Omar Terrie, director of the American Chemistry Council’s plastic foodservice packaging group, said in an emailed statement on Wednesday.

Investment in new recycling technology to process polystyrene foam is a better way to proceed, Terrie added. “Bans are not the best way to deal with the plastic waste problem,” he said.

The Chemistry Council argues that polystyrene packaging and food containers have a smaller environmental footprint over their entire “lifecycle” than some alternatives. The group also noted that there are about 1,500 jobs in upstate New York at four polystyrene manufacturing facilities.

Some experts outside of the chemical industry have also pointed out that businesses may swap out foam packaging for other materials that cause pollution. Polystyrene foam tends to be attractive for businesses because it is relatively inexpensive, lightweight and durable.

But conservation groups says that it’s exacting a heavy toll on the environment.

Jennie Romer, a lawyer who works on the Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Pollution Initiative, pushed back on the idea that recycling is a viable option for foam waste. The material, she said, tends to break apart and get caught-up with other more valuable goods in the machinery at recycling facilities.

There’s also a limited recycling market for it, she said, adding: “No one wants to buy dirty foam food ware.”

Romer explained that foam is one of the materials that shows up most frequently during Surfrider’s beach cleanups, sometimes with bite marks from birds or other animals, and other times with barnacles on it. Because it’s lightweight, it blows in the wind and floats in the water.

“It’s really hard to manage,” she said. “We’re getting rid of the worst of the worst here.”

The new restrictions on foam food packaging in Maine go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, while the Maryland and Vermont laws are slated to take effect in July. There are some differences in the specifics between the laws, like whether they exempt fish, meat and egg products.

Polystyrene is getting attention from lawmakers in other states as well. 

A database maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that over 50 bills in 17 states, and the District of Columbia were introduced this year that are focused at least in part on the foam product—mainly with an eye toward imposing new restrictions.

Many local governments have already taken action on polystyrene. When Maine’s Democratic governor, Janet Mills, signed the law there in April, her office said that at least 16 towns and cities in the state had already moved to ban disposable foam food containers.

Similar prohibitions on foam containers are in place around the U.S. in major cities, including Seattle, Minneapolis and San Francisco.

City officials in San Diego, California, meanwhile, said last week that they would hit pause on enforcing local polystyrene restrictions, amid a lawsuit that was filed earlier this year over the regulations by a restaurant industry group, restaurant owners, and a foam products manufacturer.

Romer, with Surfrider, said that while she didn’t have an exact count for how many cities in California ban foam food containers, the number is now up over 100. She suggested that local bans have helped pave the way for state legislation like the New York proposal. 

Looking ahead, Romer indicated that Surfrider and other groups may push for further measures to cut down on pollution from eateries, like requiring them to offer sit-in customers reusable plates and cutlery, or mandating that takeout packaging is recyclable or compostable.

“Banning the foam food ware is the first step,” she said.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington. You can reach him at wlucia@routefifty.com.

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