Why More and More U.S. Cities Are Breaking Up With Styrofoam

The eco-unfriendly packaging material is drawing increased scrutiny from elected officials, like NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Cockles won't be served on a styrofoam plate. (Photo: Joff Lee/Getty Images)

The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has vowed to ban Styrofoam containers from NYC stores and restaurants, representing a victory for environmentalists and another blow to beleaguered Styrofoam manufacturers.  

Styrofoam is “virtually impossible to recycle and never biodegrades,” Bloomberg said during his recent State of the City address. We know Styrofoam is “easily replaceable [and] something we can do without.”  

Because Styrofoam can’t be recycled, New Yorkers have to pay to have it shipped to landfills outside the state, at a cost of $80 per ton. “It’s not just terrible for the environment; it’s terrible for taxpayers,” Bloomberg said.

Styrofoam doesn’t degrade, so it ends up in overcrowded landfills, where it breaks into small pieces that are carried by the wind into the ocean or swept into gutter.

In the days since the NYC mayor’s high-profile address, Styrofoam hasn’t gotten a lot of love. Officials from Newton, Massachusetts, are now considering a measure that would prohibit food-service businesses from serving anything in Styrofoam. The city council in San Jose, California, is debating an ordinance that would ban food containers made of polysterene foam, the technical name for Styrofoam. 

Other cities are decidedly ahead of the game.

Seattle and Portland, Oregon, have already outlawed Styrofoam containers, along with more than 50 cities and towns in California. In November 2012, the town of Brookline, Massachusetts, forbid the use of Styrofoam cups and takeout containers. San Franscisco implemented a Styrofoam ban in 2006, and the city has seen measurable impacts as a result. Two years after the ban was official, the amount of Styrofoam litter had fallen by one-third. 

The growing anti-Styrofoam campaign is eliciting some groaning from retailer Dunkin’ Donuts, which uses Styrofoam to serve 1.5 billion cups of coffee each year.

“A polysterene ban will not eliminate waste or increase recycling; it will simply replace one type of trash with another,” the company wrote in a press release.

But Ryot News points out that Dunkin’ Donuts painted a different picture in its 2010 Corporate Responsibility Report: “We know many people are concerned about the environmental impact of Dunkin’ Donuts foam cups. We are too; in fact, it’s our #1 sustainability priority.” 

Corporations affected by bans on packaging have fought back.

David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that has been leading the charge to ban plastic bags and Styrofoam in California, says that the trade association American Chemistry Council created a front group Save the Plastic Bag Coalition that has been suing cities in California in an attempt to get plastic bag bans overturned.

Bu anyone in the environmental community will tell you that these bans are coming not a moment too soon. Americans toss an alarming 25 billion Styrofoam cups each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Because Styrofoam doesn’t degrade, it ends up in overcrowded landfills, where it breaks into small pieces that are carried by the wind into the ocean or swept into gutters were they can make their ways into local waterways.

Styrofoam particles and plastics concentrate together in the oceans, forming giant floating trash collections that make up some of the most horrifying of all manmade phenomena, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which by some estimates is twice the size of Texas.

Major natural events can sweep massive amounts of marine debris onto seashores.

Following the 2011 Japanese tsunami, a wave of Styrofoam from Japan floated across the Pacific and washed up on Alaskan beaches, prompting concerns that the Styrofoam would harm native mammals, fish, and birds if mistaken for food and ingested—an all-too common occurrence. Alaskan officials testified that bits of Styrofoam were found in the droppings of bears and other animals that live near the shore. 

Plastic bags are another major nuisance for marine environments—and one that Save the Bay has been working hard to contain.

“We have seen birds that are dying of starvation because their stomachs fill up with debris,” Lewis said. “They think they are full but they’re not eating because their stomachs fill up with plastic.” 

More than 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds die each year from ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic.

And in case you were wondering whether common grocery store bags actually make it into the ocean in large-enough quantities to have a negative impact, Californians alone use 19 billion plastic bags annually, and at least one million end up in San Francisco Bay.

Fortunately, other intrepid public officials have started giving bags the boot.

San Francisco became the first city to ban single-use plastic bags in 2007. Westport, Connecticut, banned bags in 2008; a local Westport paper reported that the ban had become part of a new culture of environmentalism in the town. Several counties in coastal North Carolina implemented a similar law in 2009, as did Portland, Oregon, in 2011. In Washington, D.C., residents are encouraged to shop with reusable bags, and charged a fee if they ask for disposable plastic bags from grocery stores and restaurants. 

There’s no question that bans on plastic bags are crucial for the array of marine birds that feast on natural resources from the ocean. 

But Lewis says birds are not necessarily the top motivator for concerned citizens who want to see bans implemented in their communities.  

“For most people, appearance of the Bay and shoreline matter more [than birds]. For many people, the top manifestation of whether they are living in a healthy city and community is how much trash is visible. People are bothered by trash on the streets and trash in the creeks,” Lewis said. “It doesn’t require a degree in chemistry to understand how that trash is affecting the Bay.”

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