Move Over, California: Washington State Is First to Ban Polystyrene
If you think California is leading the nation in environmental regulation, think again.
THIS WEEK’S CONTRIBUTOR:
Patti Toews, Sustainability and Waste Minimization Business Leader
APTIM | Environment and Sustainability
Patti Toews is a provider of sustainability and waste management solutions for our local and state government clients. She focuses on new and existing regulatory challenges and issues. Learn more about Patti here.
The State of Washington is leading the charge to reduce the use of single-use plastics by implementing the 2021 Plastic Laws. On June 1, Washington State began enforcing the ban on packing peanuts made from expanded polystyrene (EPS), better known by its trademarked name Styrofoam™, from sale and/or distribution. Then, beginning June 1, 2024, EPS portable coolers and food service clam shell containers, plates, bowls, and cups will be banned.
Who Does the Ban Apply To?
This ban applies to all manufacturers and distributors (i.e., restaurants, grocery and convenience stores, shipping/packing establishments, and schools) in the State of Washington.
Are There Exemptions?
Yes! Interestingly, egg cartons and trays/packaging for raw, uncooked, or butchered meat fish, poultry, seafood, vegetables, and fruit are exempt. I say “interestingly” because for egg cartons, there are cardboard options widely available. Moreover, I fail to see the need to have vegetables and fruit trays exempt when—dare I say it—both could go without packaging at all.
What’s the Big Deal?
EPS is often reported as the most abundant material counted during litter clean-ups largely due to its ability to fragment into smaller pieces. Additionally, EPS can accumulate high levels of persistent pollutants, which degrades wildlife’s ability to thrive once ingested.
Landfill operators dislike this material because it breaks down into thousands of small beads and blows across the face of landfills, infuriating neighbors. Landfill industry insiders always say, “good fences make for happy landfill neighbors,” but fragment polystyrene beads blow right through litter fencing, leading to lawsuits.
Most communities are unable to recycle this material because it has a low market value, can have a high food contamination ratio, and is extremely difficult to recover in large quantities given that it arrives crushed in compactor trucks. In addition, the small beads of EPS have a “static nature,” clinging other materials streams (i.e., glass, paper, cardboard, and metals) and increasing contamination at material recovery facilities.
Finally, EPS is harmful to humans. Research is ongoing in this area. Some studies suggest that acids (e.g., tomato sauces) and/or hot liquids should not be placed into polystyrene containers given that it is a petroleum-based plastic made from styrene, a synthetic chemical classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA. Here at APTIM, we will continue to follow the on-going research in this area.
How Is This Issue Being Regulated and Enforced?
Currently, the State of Washington is working with non-compliant businesses, institutions, manufacturers, and distributors, providing outreach and technical assistance to gain compliance. However, repeat and/or non-compliant offenders may be fined up to $250.
What Can You Do To Help?
Your daily decisions can make a difference. My top tip is to opt for containers and packaging made from more sustainable materials. Here are four EPS alternatives to reduce the negative impact of EPS in our environment.
- Foam-free Containers: Containers can be made of reusable materials (metal, glass, etc.) that stand up to multiple washes and reuse. Moreover, there are several plant-based alternatives, such as wheat fiber/wheat straw, paper fibers, palm leaf, mushrooms, foil, bamboo and bamboo leaf, and Bagasse, which is made from agave, sorghum, and/or pressed sugarcane.
- Loose Fill Packaging: As much as possible, use starch-based packing materials. Starch products are typically made from corn. Additionally, creatives use whole peanuts, popcorn, and/or shredded cardboard and paper. Each of these options are reusable, compostable, and/or recyclable.
- BYO To-go Boxes: Many restaurants are happy to save money on to-go containers and appreciate customers who think ahead and bring their own.
- Reusable Coolers and/or Biodegradable Coolers: A great way to reduce the negative environmental effects of EPS is to purchase a reusable cooler. In a pinch, you can use a paper-pulp-based cooler that is biodegradable.
What are you doing to reduce EPS use in your organization and at home? We would love to hear from you. As always, the APTIM Waste Minimization team is here to answer any questions you have and provide comprehensive solutions to your business or community to measure, minimize, and manage challenging material streams.
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