Foam coolers, takeout containers will be banned in WA

The prohibition on the sale and distribution of these products will take effect June 1 under a law the Legislature approved in 2021.

By Bill Lucia / Washington State Standard

Those foam clamshell containers long used by restaurants for takeout food will soon be illegal statewide in Washington.

Coffee cups, plates, trays, and other food and drink carriers made from the same material — known as expanded polystyrene — will also be outlawed. Single-use foam coolers, too. The prohibition on the sale and distribution of these products will take effect June 1 under a law the Legislature approved in 2021.

“It’s a big deal,” Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington said of the restrictions. “We have had, over time, just an explosion in the use of single-use plastic foodware.”

Recycling expanded polystyrene is possible. But the state’s Department of Ecology notes that it is expensive to do and that most residential recycling programs don’t accept the foam. Food residue on the material complicates things further. And when the foam does end up in recycling facilities, it can blow around and contaminate other materials.

A spokesman for the Washington Hospitality Association, which represents restaurants, said the group was neutral on the 2021 bill when it moved through the Legislature and wasn’t interested in commenting on the restrictions going into effect in June.

Last year, the state prohibited the sale and distribution of foam packing peanuts under the same law.

At least 11 states have passed laws to phase out expanded polystyrene foam, according to Oceana. The environmental group is among those calling for nationwide prohibitions on the material. Seattle banned foam food containers about 15 years ago. Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek signed a law last year that mirrors Washington’s policy.

The material is a problem when it ends up in oceans or elsewhere in the environment because it can take centuries to decompose. Research has also shown that when the foam breaks into small bits, it can harm wildlife and end up in the food chain.

Rigid foam products, including Dow’s trademark Styrofoam, emerged during the 1930s and 1940s and are now often made using ethylene and benzene, both derived from petroleum.

Expanded polystyrene remains popular because it’s lightweight, durable, and can serve as insulation. It’s used in a wide variety of goods not banned under Washington’s law – including construction materials, safety helmets, and many other types of packaging.

Ecology says it will first respond to businesses that violate the foam ban with “education, resources, and technical assistance” and will provide assistance where possible. Manufacturers who break the law can get dinged with a $250 fine if it’s their first penalty and up to $1,000 for repeated violations.

As for alternatives to foam food containers, Ecology says there are plenty of options and points to a guide assembled by New York state after its expanded polystyrene foam ban took effect.

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