Bye-Bye, Styrofoam: Washington, D.C., Finally Bans Plastic Take-Out Containers

Restaurants and cafés will no longer be able to use nonbiodegradable food and drink cups and boxes.

(Photo: Sam Diephuis/Getty Images)

Jun 25, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

With all the in-fighting in Congress, sometimes it can seem like there’s never any good news coming out of Washington, D.C. Well, here’s a little something that should cause quite a bit of cheer: The era of ubiquitous Styrofoam to-go cups and containers is about to come to a close in the nation’s capital.

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council voted to ban the use of single-use disposable containers made from the material in restaurants and cafés. Styrofoam is the brand name of polystyrene foam, a plastic material that’s not biodegradable. Unless it’s completely clean—no food or drink residue at all—recyclers won’t accept it.

Thanks to pressure from environmental activists, dozens of municipalities across the country have banned Styrofoam over the past few years. San Francisco outlawed it in 2006, and last year Mayor Michael Bloomberg vowed to make New York City free of it too.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States generated 32 million tons of plastic waste in 2012. Almost 14 million tons came from plastic containers and packaging, and nearly 7 million were nondurable goods like plates and cups. How much of that is Styrofoam? Well, the news is pretty dismal.

The EPA found that Americans chuck 25 billion (yes, billion) Styrofoam cups per year. That’s not even counting the to-go container in which your half-eaten burrito gets inserted so you can take it home. Because just 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled, 500 years from now every Styrofoam cup handed out at a doughnut shop this morning will still be sitting in a landfill.

According to the Washington Post, the plastics industry predictably declared that the ban will be “an expensive new burden” on it. Don’t pity it too much, though. Because D.C.’s ban won’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2016, the industry still has two years to profit from material that pollutes the environment.