Maine Is the First State to Ban Styrofoam

Maryland, Oregon, Vermont, and Connecticut are also considering polystyrene bans as resistance to single-use plastic increases.
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A food cart worker fills a styrofoam take-out container with food for a customer on December 19th, 2013, in New York City.

A food cart worker fills a styrofoam take-out container with food for a customer.

In a major victory for environmentalists, Maine has become the the first state to ban Styrofoam containers for food and beverages. The ban, signed by Democratic Governor Janet Mills on Tuesday, will take effect on January 1st, 2021.

The ban will make it illegal for restaurants to sell or distribute the containers (such as bowls, plates, cups, trays, and cartons), with penalties of up to $100 in fines. In addition, grocery stores and other businesses will be prohibited from using the containers. There are some exceptions: Hospitals, seafood shippers, and state-funded meals-on-wheels programs will still be allowed to use Styrofoam.

According to the Natural Resources Council of Maine, these containers are some of the most commonly littered items in the United States, with the state of Maine using 256 million Styrofoam items every year.

Polystyrene foam, a petroleum-based plastic, is the technical term for what comprises the better-known brand-name product, Styrofoam. The material never really biodegrades; instead, it continuously breaks into smaller pieces that are hard to clean up, and, as a result, it's often consumed by wildlife. And because it is lightweight, polystyrene is easily windblown and often ends up in waterways, contaminating water sources and harming marine animals. Because the foam easily absorbs toxins, small pieces of polystyrene can quickly make their way up the food chain. And virtually all humans have consumed these microplastics during their lifetime, which can introduce endocrine disruptors into the bloodstream, causing negative health effects.

"Polystyrene is harmful to humans, it puts strain on our fish stocks and it can't be recycled," state Representative Paige Zeigler, who sponsored the bill, said in a statement. "Thankfully, there are Maine-made alternatives ready to be used."

The legislation was strongly opposed by the plastics industry, manufacturers of the containers, and Maine businesses that argued the polystyrene was economical, according to CNBC. But a 2011 study concluded that consumers in Honolulu would be willing to pay more for environmentally friendly takeout containers, which, the authors conclude, could help offset costs to businesses in Honolulu and elsewhere.

Similar legislation passed Maryland's legislature last month, but Maryland's Republican governor, Larry Hogan, has yet to sign it into law. Oregon, Vermont, and Connecticut are also considering similar bills. Bans are gaining steam among companies as well: Dunkin' and McDonald's have both pledged to ban Styrofoam use.

Polystyrene bans are part of a broader trend to end single-use plastic pollution: California and Hawaii have banned plastic bags, and some cities have banned plastic straws. The plastics industry itself has announced steps to reduce single-use plastic, by making its products reusable, recyclable, or recoverable by 2030. In January, the industry pledged $1.5 billion over five years to end plastic waste through a new non-profit, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, according to Reuters.

"There's a reckoning that's beginning, because of the realization that what we've built and bought into not only cannot be sustained, but was sort of disingenuous to begin with," says Ashley Van Stone, executive director of Trash Free Maryland, which has led the Maryland foam ban campaign for the last three years. "This is not solely a recycling issue, or a litter issue, it's a system issue embedded a certain way culturally. It requires both technical solutions and societal shifts."

However, piecemeal bans leave vast areas of the U.S. open to continued use of single-use plastic and polystyrene. According to a report by the Emmett Institute, efforts to institute plastics bans by lawmakers have encountered various legal challenges. The authors argue that the U.S. needs to capitalize on the anti-plastic momentum occurring at local and state levels to create a comprehensive federal ban. Currently, no legislation exists at the federal level aimed at banning or reducing plastic use except for the the 2015 Microbead-Free Waters Act.

Product bans are relatively uncommon at the federal level, according to John Pendergrass, vice president of programs and publications and leader of the research and policy division at the Environmental Law Institute. Instead, the federal government usually regulates—rather than bans—potentially environmentally damaging products such such as pesticides and vehicles, through the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies.

But until there is a comprehensive ban, there is still the possibility for litter to find its way to areas like Maine that have prohibitions, according to Van Stone. But she notes that, where there are Styrofoam bans, foam litter is reduced, and the same has proven true in areas with plastic bag bans, meaning overall plastic pollution decreases.

Will there be a federal ban any time soon?

It's hard to say, Pendergrass says. But he anticipates that challenges to federal plastics bans will be political rather than legal, and he notes that environmental policy often begins at the local and state level.

"Within the current landscape, I would expect to see more local and state level action continue to progress before federal," Van Stone says. But, she adds, "Piecemeal [action] is sometimes part of the pathway to something more comprehensive."

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