The 127th Maine Legislature is currently considering a statewide polystyrene foam ban, LD 468, that would go into effect on January 1, 2016. This ban cites a need to “protect the environment and wildlife of the State and to reduce the increasing costs of litter collection and solid waste disposal.” However, foam manufacturers, state trade associations, and even Maine governor Paul LePage believe that the focus should be on foam recycling rather than a foam ban. They argue that investing in a foam recycling program would aid Maine by benefiting the environment while continuing to keep a functional, inexpensive product in use.
Not to be confused with Styrofoam, polystyrene foam is used to make foam cups, plates, and take-out containers. Styrofoam – a registered trademark of the Dow Chemical Company – is used primarily for insulation. Common misconceptions about polystyrene include that foam is made with ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and that foam contains a human carcinogen. The foam industry maintains that their products are 100% recyclable, and much more environmentally friendly than most people realize.
When cleaned, ground down, and heated, recycled foam is used nationwide for insulation, the base product of windmill blades, and as a major component of solar paneling. Recycled polystyrene foam can also be used to make items like picture frames, architectural molding, and garden nursery trays. Supporters argue that a foam ban would not reduce litter, it would just replace one type of litter with another. A focused effort on foam recycling would create jobs, reduce waste, and save money for retailers and consumers alike.
Though the proposed legislation revolves around environmental issues, a foam ban would also have longstanding economic implications. Critics of the foam ban have pointed out that costs quadrupled when the Portland school district switched from foam lunch trays to paper lunch trays. Similarly, foam products offer restaurants – many of which operate on razor-thin profit margins – an affordable and effective food storage solution. Those against the legislation speculate that banning foam would cost certain New England restaurant owners up to tens of thousands of dollars each year.
In order to combat the proposed foam ban, foam manufacturers and Maine trade associations plan to educate the people of Maine about the environmental and economic benefits of foam recycling, while discouraging litter. Polystyrene foam isn’t just recyclable, it’s often more easily recycled than alternative materials, like wax-lined cups. Banning a product that gives back to the community, both environmentally and economically, disrupts a system that is not broken.