Published: Jan. 4, 2024
Contributor: Jamie Hailstone
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Campaigners have hailed proposed new legislation aimed at phasing out the use of plastic foam foodware and other single-use items across the entire United States as a “significant step forward”.
The Farewell to Foam Act has been introduced by senator Chris Van Hollen and congressman Lloyd Doggett and if passed, would restrict the sale and use of foam foodware, foam packing peanuts, and single-use foam coolers beginning in 2026.
It follows a report by the campaigning group Ocean Conservancy earlier this autumn, which claimed over 5.6 billion pieces of plastic foam foodware are used in the U.S. each year.
Ocean Conservancy’s associate director of U.S. plastics policy, Dr. Anja Brandon said in an interview the standalone bill is a “significant step forward” and would remove some of the most polluting and harmful plastics out there.
Dr. Brandon said plastic foam foodware is one of the top 10 items polluting beaches around the world, according to data from ocean Conservancy's international Coastal Cleanup.
She added 11 states and Washington D.C., have already introduced legislation limiting the use of plastic foam foodware.
The first state to introduce a ban was Maryland, where the amount of plastic foam foodware items collected as part International Coastal Cleanup has declined by 65%.
Since 1986 International Coastal Cleanup volunteers have collected over 8.7 million plastic foam cups, plates, and takeout containers globally.
Since 2013, Ocean Conservancy has tracked the types of “tiny trash” items volunteers collect from beaches and waterways, and in that time, nearly 30 million foam pieces have been recorded globally.
“We know the world is not going to fall apart if we get rid of these materials,” she told me. “What we do know that the oceans and our environment will be all the better for it.”
Ocean Conservancy’s recently published report has also found strong support for national action, with 70% of Americans surveyed across political lines supporting a national ban on this material.
The same survey found that half of Americans reported putting plastic foam in their recycling bin in the last two weeks, despite this material being unrecyclable through curbside recycling programs.
And the survey found high levels of concern about plastic foam’s impact on humans and wildlife.
Three quarters (76%) of Americans reported feeling concerned about plastic foam containing harmful chemicals, and over half of Americans reported feeling very concerned about animals and wildlife ingesting microplastic foam pieces.
Ocean Conservancy estimates that this amounts to roughly 2.5 billion pieces of foam foodware contaminating American recycling systems each year.
Dr. Brandon said “Americans are hungry” for alternatives, like reusable cups or foodware made from compostable or recyclable materials.
“What we've seen from the 11 states limiting plastic foam foodware is there are a variety of options we can choose from that are significantly better,” she told me.
In a statement, Senator Van Hollen said foam food containers can end up choking waterways like the Chesapeake Bay once they have been thrown away and contaminate the food supply.
“This pollution poses a serious, growing danger to human and environmental health and causes real economic harm to those whose livelihoods depend on our waterways,” added the Senator.
While Rep. Doggett said the proposed legislation seeks a “cleaner, more sustainable future for our entire country by saying farewell to foam”.
In an email, the senior federal policy lead at the non-profit 5 Gyres Institute, Paulita Bennet-Martin said plastic foam products so easily break down into smaller fragments and microplastics, adding to the 170 trillion pieces of plastic already afloat in the ocean that are impossible to clean up.
“It gives us hope that members of Congress, led by senator Van Hollen and congressman Doggett, are considering phasing out these problematic products and saying farewell to foam once and for all,” she added.
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