What can I do about the Foam Ban?

Tim Murphy Coordinator, Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative

A major step was taken this year by the District of Columbia and neighboring jurisdictions, Prince George’s County and Montgomery County to ban the use of Styrofoam (Polystyrene) products for businesses that serve food or beverages. The intent is to move consumer usage toward products that are less harmful on the environment. Due to its lightweight nature, foam can be easily blown and washed into local waterways. It is made in such a way that it does not decompose, but breaks apart into small pieces so that it looks like food to the fish and animals that live in and around the water. This then becomes an ingested toxin and has harmful effects on the animal.

There will be a period of time over which the ban will take full effect. Although the responsibility of discontinuing foam products rests on the businesses in the food industry, there are a number of things consumers can do to help get rid of the foam from the environment. Just think of the 4 R’s

Reduce – If you patronize a business continuing to use foam, make the owners aware of the ban. The Department of Energy and Environment seeks to educate and assist with compliance rather than fine businesses for first offenses. See doee.dc.gov/foam for information on compliance and vendors of acceptable alternative products.

Reuse – Although you should make the best efforts to not use foam in the first place, it can find its way into your home as part of shipping or packaging. Rather than throw it away and take up that precious landfill space (remember, foam doesn’t biodegrade like other products will) there are decorative or functional uses for the stuff. I read an interesting post on recyclenation.com that can give you a few ideas.

Rethink- It is becoming more and more popular to carry a reusable drink container with you that you can fill up without using a supplied foam product. If you know you are going to be purchasing food, why not carry your own reusable service items with you. Stick them in your reusable bag and wash them when you get home.

Recycle – Most local waste haulers will not accept Styrofoam due to the cost involved in hauling a high volume lightweight material. It is also less expensive for manufacturers to make new Styrofoam than recycle it. There are, however, local companies that accept clean dry Styrofoam for recycling (EPI Industry Alliance www.epspackaging.org and selected locations of Mom’s Organic Market)  and local shipping companies may accept it to reuse.

It make take a little extra effort on our part, but each step we take brings us closer to sustainable waterways that are safe for drinking, swimming and fishing.