Congress proposes nationwide ‘Farewell to Foam’ legislation

Iranpolymer/Baspar Washington — More than 50 lawmakers in Congress called for a national ban on expanded polystyrene foodservice products on Dec. 7, saying they wanted to build on similar plastic foam bans that have passed in 11 states since 2019.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, led the introduction of the “Farewell to Foam Act,” saying that by 2026 it would ban EPS foodservice products, loose-fill packing peanuts and nonmedical disposable foam coolers.

Industry groups said the legislation could force switches to alternative materials with higher greenhouse footprints and that EPS is not a major source of pollution, but Van Hollen pointed to pollution of waterways and health concerns around chemicals and microplastics.
“By phasing out foam and encouraging the use of more sustainable packaging, we can tackle a major driver of pollution and improve the health of our communities,” Van Hollen said. “Single-use plastics like foam food containers don’t disappear when you throw them away; they end up choking waterways like the Chesapeake Bay and contaminating our food supply.”

His home state of Maryland was the first to pass an EPS ban, in 2019. Since then, 10 more states with a combined population of a little more than 100 million have followed, including California and New York. In August, Delaware became the 11th state.

Doggett said he wanted to build on the state and local bans and noted concerns about EPS foam breaking into microplastics, a point highlighted by other lawmakers in their joint announcement.
“As trash clutters our waterways, roadsides and greenspaces, foam doesn’t fully disintegrate,” Doggett said. “Instead, it ever so slowly degrades into microplastics that pollute our bodies and our planet.”

The statement from Van Hollen’s office called EPS “one of the most harmful forms of single-use plastic” and said it often contains toxic additives like flame retardants and colorants linked to central nervous system damage and increased cancer risk. As well, it said EPS is difficult to recycle and pointed to a study that found a 65 percent drop in plastic foam foodservice pollution in beaches and waterways after Maryland passed its 2019 ban.

One senator noted both health and recycling concerns.
“This single-use plastic often contains additional toxic additives and easily breaks down into microplastics, causing macro problems to our environment and health,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “Unrecyclable and already banned by several states, it’s time for us to enact the Farewell to Foam Act countrywide.”

Industry calls bill a ‘Band-Aid’

Plastics industry groups, however, called the legislation misguided and pushed back on some claims from lawmakers.
The head of the Expanded Polystyrene Industry Alliance, for example, said EPS foam is not a “major driver” of pollution and that flame retardants are not in the products that would be banned.

“Foodservice in no way contains flame retardants,” said Betsy Bowers, EPS-IA executive director. “All polystyrene foam has FDA approval. It’s got approval down the line globally for foodservice use.”

She said environmental groups have mischaracterized risk levels or not referenced government risk assessments in their arguments, and she suggested the legislation was not well researched.

“I think that it’s really poorly researched, and I think that there’s an overreliance by policymakers at the federal level, at the state level, on information they’re gleaning, if you will, from NGOs,” Bowers said. “Ocean Conservancy and groups working under them are playing really loose with even the scientific data that they’re referencing. This is really alarming when it’s being used to support policy recommendations.”

The American Chemistry Council called the legislation a “Band-Aid” and said Congress should instead work to pass laws setting up financing mechanisms to improve recycling infrastructure and to require recycled content.

“The Farewell to Foam Act is misguided legislation that won’t meaningfully address plastic pollution and would force a switch to materials often with higher greenhouse gas footprints and worse performance attributes,” said Ross Eisenberg, president of America’s Plastic Makers, a unit of ACC.

“America doesn’t need this one-off, Band-Aid approach at the expense of an incredibly useful material,” he said. “We need real solutions like requiring recycled content in packaging and financing mechanisms that increase access to recycling and leverage technology to transform our recycling infrastructure.”

Eisenberg pointed to ACC’s five-point federal legislative framework unveiled two years ago, although that proposal has not yet been introduced as legislation in Congress as ACC continues to work finding bipartisan sponsors.

Congressional Democrats have proposed bills like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, calling for extended producer responsibility programs to finance packaging recycling.

NGOs note recycling challenges

Environmental groups rallied behind the legislation, pointing to problems recycling EPS in curbside programs and the health impacts from its microplastic pollution.

Ocean Conservancy, which unveiled a “What the Foam” campaign in September calling on Congress to ban plastic foam foodware, called EPS “unrecyclable” in curbside programs and said it’s a common pollutant in beach cleanups. The group said EPS was the seventh most frequently collected item in its network of beach cleanups last year, and it pointed to other anecdotal evidence of its impact.

Tiny pieces of plastic foam, for example, have been the most collected item two years in a row in a network of inland waterway trash capturing devices it operates with researchers at the University of Toronto, Ocean Conservancy said.

“To solve the ocean plastics crisis, we must produce less plastic, full stop,” said Nick Mallos, the group’s vice president of ocean plastics. “Phasing out these highly polluting, effectively nonrecyclable items on a national level is a critical step toward achieving this goal.”

EPS industry officials, on the other hand, have pointed to success with programs to recycle EPS transport packaging used for business-to-business shipping. They’ve also noted that the North American industry has announced $185 million in investments to boost recycled-content EPS resins from under 5 percent to 30 percent.

But environmental groups point to difficulties with curbside recycling of EPS, as well as the costs of litter and waste management that have prompted more than 250 U.S. cities to pass ordinances to restrict or ban foodservice EPS.

The groups said the public is very confused about how to handle EPS packaging when they’re done using it. Ocean Conservancy said a survey it did found that 35 percent of people “always” put EPS in the curbside bin, apparently believing it’s widely recyclable.

In its September report, Ocean Conservancy advocated for more reusable packaging infrastructure to replace single-use materials.

Bowers of EPS-IA, however, said many materials used in foodservice packaging face the same recycling challenges from contamination that EPS does. As well, composting infrastructure largely “doesn’t exist,” she said.

“Some communities do recycle polystyrene foam foodservice,” Bowers said. “Most do not.”
She said the legislation does not address the impact of potential alternatives to EPS.
“I think it’s very alarmist for the public to be feeling that their lives are being endangered by common-day materials that have undergone proper government approvals,” Bowers said. “They’re scaremongering their own constituents, unnecessarily.”

Environmental groups pointed to widespread support in polls for banning EPS foodware. The group Oceana said 72 percent of Americans it polled specifically support reducing plastic foam foodware, packing peanuts and coolers.

“Plastic foam’s harmful impacts and persistence in our environment demand immediate attention if we are to effectively combat the growing plastic pollution crisis,” said Christy Leavitt, campaign director at Oceana.
Environmental groups said the bill is the first standalone federal legislation banning EPS, but it has been part of other, larger bills in Congress.

The legislation would apply to foodservice providers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers. It includes a sliding scale of fines, from $250 to $1,000, and would exempt EPS used for medical, industrial or safety purposes.



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