Plastic foam bans have passed in more than 200 U.S. cities and other communities. Photo by Tim Gortsema
A foam takeout container travels from a restaurant, to a household and then into the dump.
Its journey may not stop there if it’s picked up by the wind and flies into Lake Michigan.
There, it breaks into little pieces that can be eaten by a fish that confuses it for food. The foam stays in the fish’s stomach until it dies. Hundreds of pieces of foam can be found in its body.
Polystyrene foam, more widely known as Styrofoam, does not biodegrade. It breaks into small pieces and persists in the environment long after it is created.
Organizations nationwide are attempting to ban single-use plastic foam.
For example, Environment America launched a Wildlife Over Waste campaign to spare birds, fish and other wildlife from the harm caused by plastic pollution.
“This is something that is having a moment in the consciousness of not just America but around the globe,” said Nathan Murphy, the state director of Environment Michigan, one of the national group’s 29 regional organizations. “We are really taking a step back and asking if the convenience of this takeout container is worth the harm that it can cause once it gets out into the environment.”
Scientists continue to document the scope of plastic pollution and are investigating its effects on the environment and public health.
According to an ordinance in Albany, California, styrene, a component of polystyrene, is a known hazardous substance that medical evidence and the Food and Drug Administration suggests leaches from polystyrene containers into food and drink.
Also, due to the physical properties of polystyrene, the Environmental Protection Agency states “that such materials can also have serious impacts on human health, wildlife, the aquatic environment and the economy.”
Plastic foam bans have passed in more than 200 U.S. cities and other communities, including Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine. The Environment America national network has won similar efforts to reduce waste and plastic pollution, including statewide recycling laws and the first statewide plastic bag ban in California.
None of those laws encompass states bordering the Great Lakes, which contain 21% of the world’s surface freshwater.
“Polystyrene containers inevitably enter our Great Lakes waters,” Murphy said. “There is something special about Michigan and the Great Lakes, and we need to protect our resources.”
With the planet’s largest system of surface freshwater, Great Lakes officials worry about the amount of plastics and polystyrene that flow into them.
Plastic debris makes up about 80% of the litter on Great Lakes shorelines, according to a Rochester Institute of Technology study. It found that larger plastic debris can entangle wildlife and mar boating and other recreational activities. Fish, birds, plankton and other animals can eat smaller plastic debris. That plastic can be transferred up the food web to affect a larger section of aquatic or human life.
Murphy said, “Nothing that we use for a few minutes or a day should be out there harming wildlife for literally centuries.”
While tracing the origin of the drive for removing single-use polystyrene is difficult, officials say what matters is its positive outcome.
“We clearly see consumers demanding action in certain places,” said Sean Hammond, the Michigan Environmental Council policy director. “Large companies do not change what they are doing without consumer pressure.”
Dart Container Corp., a large manufacturer of polystyrene products based in Mason, is working to offset the environmental effects plastic products cause by opening foam recycling drop-off centers and establishing other recycling programs, company communications officer Becky Warren said.
In 2019, Dart’s affiliate, Plastic Recycling Inc., opened the first-of-its-kind facility dedicated to recycling mixed bales of foam and rigid polystyrene from residential curbside recycling programs in the U.S and Canada. It’s in Indianapolis.
“The solutions out there for polystyrene right now are just a quick fix,” Warren said. “It’s much more comprehensive than many people think and needs multiple partners to come to the table to help find the correct solution that’s not just a quick fix.”
Murphy said legislation is in the works to ban single-use polystyrene convenience plastics. Environment Michigan has been working with Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, to draft the bill.
“We know there are better solutions that are better for our wildlife and better for our environment,” Murphy said.
He recommends people bring reusable containers when they dine out instead of relying on polystyrene take-home containers. Patrons can also ask restaurants to use non-polystyrene containers and choose to frequent restaurants and other businesses that use alternative containers.