Polystyrene foam containers are great for keeping your takeout order hot, even in cooler weather. But once you’re done with your meal, you’re left with a piece of foam that can’t be easily reused or recycled.
And it’s not just takeout containers; add in packing peanuts, egg cartons and billions of Styrofoam cups, and that’s a lot of foam. Three million tons of polystyrene foam are produced in the United States every year – enough foam to fill AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys, almost five times.
Far too much of this foam becomes litter in our communities, polluting our roadsides, parks, rivers and beaches. The good news is that bans on certain polystyrene foam products in states and cities across the country have proven effective at reducing this litter.
Bans on polystyrene foam are particularly critical in coastal areas, where foam litter can easily reach the ocean. In California, polystyrene foam makes up about 15% of litter in storm drains and is the “second most common form of beach debris.” That means a lot of discarded foam ends up in the ocean, where it gradually breaks down into smaller pieces.
Since polystyrene foam is not readily biodegradable, those increasingly small pieces can continue to pollute the ocean and endanger marine life for hundreds of years. Turtles, mammals, seabirds and other marine animals eat this foam – mistaking it for their food – and can suffer blocked digestive tracts that can keep them from getting the nutrients they need and cause starvation. To make matters worse, chemicals that leach from polystyrene products can be toxic to marine life.
Polystyrene bans work
The best way to protect marine animals and keep our communities clean is to produce and use less polystyrene foam in the first place. Studies of polystyrene bans show that they consistently reduce associated litter.
- The proportion of large litter that was polystyrene foam in San Francisco dropped by 36% in the first year after the city banned foam food ware in 2007.
- Polystyrene foam food ware litter in San Leandro, Calif., decreased by 61% after the city banned it in 2012.
- Charleston County, S.C., beach and river litter cleanups in 2019 found 9.5% fewer foam containers per mile covered than in 2017, the year before its ban on polystyrene foam went into effect.
- The proportion of foam found in trash traps in the Anacostia River, which flows through Maryland and Washington, D.C., declined by 69% from November 2015 to August 2016. In that time, Washington, D.C., imposed a ban on polystyrene foam in food settings and neighboring Montgomery County, Md., and Prince George County, Md., implemented full polystyrene foam bans.
- Two trash collection machines in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor – affectionately known as Mr. Trash Wheel and Professor Trash Wheel – were gathering almost 82% fewer foam containers one year after Maryland imposed a statewide ban on polystyrene foam food service products in October 2020.
Polystyrene bans are catching on across the country, with Colorado set to ban polystyrene food containers in January 2024 and Washington expanding its polystyrene ban to include containers and other food service products in June 2024. If polystyrene foam bans elsewhere in the U.S. are any indication, those states can soon look forward to enjoying parks, rivers and streams with fewer bits of plastic foam, while helping to reduce the burden of foam pollution on our precious wildlife and ecosystems.
 Polystyrene foam comes in two primary forms – expanded and extruded. This source refers to expanded polystyrene foam, or EPS, which is used for many of the most commonly encountered foam products, including takeout containers, cups and packing peanuts. Extruded polystyrene foam, or XPS, has other applications like home and building insulation and architectural building models. References to polystyrene foam throughout this fact file primarily refer to expanded polystyrene foam.
Policy Associate, Frontier Group
Louis works on zero waste and public health as a Policy Associate with Frontier Group. After graduating from Yale with a B.A. in music in 2022, he joined U.S. PIRG’s public health team and campaigned to reduce antibiotic overuse in U.S. meat production and improve indoor air quality in schools nationwide. Based in Charlottesville, VA, he enjoys birding, choral singing (especially Dvořák) and watching his hometown Boston Red Sox.
State Director, Environment Oregon
As director of Environment Oregon, Celeste develops and runs campaigns to win real results for Oregon's environment. She has worked on issues ranging from preventing plastic pollution, stopping global warming, defending clean water, and protecting our beautiful places. Celeste's organizing has helped to reduce kids' exposure to lead in drinking water at childcare facilities in Oregon, encourage transportation electrification, ban single-use plastic grocery bags, defend our bedrock environmental laws and more. She is also the author of the children's book, Myrtle the Turtle, empowering kids to prevent plastic pollution. Celeste lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and two daughters, where they frequently enjoy the bounty of Oregon's natural beauty.