It’s that time of year — a time for leftovers. Whether it’s carryout from your favorite restaurant, a quick drive-through meal on your way between errands or a plate of leftovers from a holiday party, we carry meals in a variety of packaging. However, not all food packaging is created equal.
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam, more commonly known as Styrofoam, poses several unique and insidious threats to the health of our waterways and our communities. Unlike other forms of trash, EPS foam is impossible to fully clean up once it is thrown away. It is a petroleum-based product that does not biodegrade. Instead, it crumbles and breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces each time it is touched or disturbed.
Each year Blue Water Baltimore hosts dozens of community-led trash cleanups throughout the Baltimore region. At the conclusion of the cleanup events we often ask our volunteers what was the most frustrating piece of litter they encountered. Without fail, one of the top answers we hear is “Styrofoam.” Cleaning up EPS foam is a nightmare and, in the end, a losing battle.
When EPS foam packaging falls out of trashcans or is littered on the sidewalk, it eventually makes its way into our storm drains and ultimately into to the harbor and the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. Once in the water it will absorb 10 times more pesticides, fertilizers and chemicals than other kinds of plastic, increasing toxin exposure to fish and other aquatic animals, and potentially making its way into the food chain. Further, workers exposed to styrene monomers during the manufacturing process have increased risk of lymphoma, leukemia and other forms of cancer. But safer and more environmentally friendly food packaging options are available.
Some may claim that bans aren’t necessary because EPS foam is recyclable. However, this claim is misleading and wrong. While some EPS foam might be recyclable in theory (such as the kind used as shipping material for electronics) food service foam after it has been soiled by food is not capable of being recycled in an environmentally effective or economically feasible manner. In fact, the New York City Department of Sanitation released a report in May determining that for 30 years across many municipalities throughout the country, attempts to recycle food service foam have failed, and that numerous towns and cities ultimately end up disposing of the material in landfills. New York City reinstated its ban on single use EPS foam packaging for food containers this year.
Locally here in Baltimore, annual tallies from Mr. Trash Wheel and his counterpart Professor Trash Wheel show that EPS food packaging is the second most prevalent type of trash collected, behind only cigarette butts. Baltimore City Councilman John Bullock introduced a ban on Styrofoam food to-go packaging this fall that would prevent food service facilities in Baltimore City from using “any disposable food service ware that is made from polystyrene foam” and would help Baltimore reduce the trash pollution that routinely fouls our waterways.
When the Maryland General Assembly kicks off in January, Baltimore Del. Brooke Lierman will introduce a bill to phase out polystyrene across the state. Expanded polystyrene foam has already been successfully phased out in Montgomery, Prince George’s County and Washington, D.C. These transitions have been smooth, and businesses have been able to use substitute recyclable packaging at a comparable price. A statewide policy would provide consistency for businesses and retailers across the state.
Blue Water Baltimore strongly supports proactive policies such as these to eliminate EPS foam pollution and to bring us another step closer to clean water and strong communities throughout Maryland.