Having successfully outlawed plastic bags and straws, the next target of California lawmakers, who seem intent on criminalizing as many consumer conveniences as possible, just might be those foam containers used to hold take-out food.
Polystyrene, often called by its brand name Styrofoam, is used for more than packaging food — it’s commonly found in a broad range of consumer products. Despite its usefulness, there’s a growing crusade to outlaw it. The California Senate has twice tried to pass bills that would have barred restaurants from using disposable foam containers, most recently through the so-called Ocean Pollution Reduction Act, which failed in January.
Ben Allen, the Santa Monica Democrat who introduced the legislation, said he will try again in 2019 — after he’s educated his “colleagues on the damaging impact of Styrofoam on our coastline,” he told the Los Angeles Times. He will no doubt fall back on the usual talking points — that 60% to 80% of marine debris is plastic, and 90 percent of floating debris is plastic.
Though widely cited, those claims don’t stand up to scrutiny.
First, the numbers are from a 2006 study. They don’t likely reflect the state of the world today. For instance, anti-littering campaigns have been shown since 2006 to be one of several programs governments have employed to successfully cut waste. A study of waste-abatement strategies in Australia just published in ScienceDirect concluded that cities with “illegal dumping programs, litter prevention programs and recycling programs had significantly less waste along their coasts than councils without those programs.”
Polystyrene: It’s Not That Much
Second, these numbers encompass all plastics, meaning that the measure of polystyrene would only be a portion of the overall estimate. It’s also noteworthy that California has already banned two of the components — plastic bags and plastic straws — that make up the plastics category.
Third, those 2006 estimates are global, meaning that a statewide prohibition would have almost no effect on that garbage patch swirling in the Pacific Ocean. Ninety percent of ocean plastic flows in from eight rivers in Asia and two in Africa. Only about 1% of ocean plastic is from California.
Polystyrene opponents also cite the material’s refusal to decompose. But when properly disposed of, polystyrene isn’t overflowing from landfills. It makes up less than 7% of the more than 33 million tons of plastic thrown away in this country each year.
Anti-foam forces claim they’re fighting for the environment, but banning polystyrene is no green panacea. There’s no guarantee its replacements will be more environmentally friendly. Studies comparing paper, the most likely substitute, with foam containers suggest that paper has “higher environmental burdens.” Across its lifecycle, paper requires greater oil and electricity consumption, while polystyrene generates much less waste water and takes up far less landfill space, according to Ohio State University researcher Joseph Fiksel.
Prohibition Costs Money, Jobs
Not to be overlooked are the considerable economic problems that foam prohibition would produce. Recycle Nation tells us “the typical paper cup costs around two-and-a-half times the amount of a Styrofoam cup.” Either businesses eat the added expense, making them less profitable, or they pass their costs on to customers. In California, this would cost consumers roughly $376 million a year.
A polystyrene ban in California would also wipe out nearly 8,000 jobs across the state, cause $335 million in lost earnings, and reduce economic output by almost $1.4 billion. You can be sure that if successful in California, this effort will be exported to other states.
Outlawing polystyrene might generate warm feelings and win political points. But it won’t be a step forward. There would be too many unintended consequences, and, especially regarding the environment, at least one adversarial outcome.