Maine became the first state to ban food containers made of polystyrene, commonly known as styrofoam, on April 30 when Gov. Janet Mills signed legislation sponsored by State Rep (D) Stanley Zeigler.
The law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021, which gives restaurants, grocery stores, and other establishments ample time to find sustainable alternatives.
The new law doesn’t target all forms of styrofoam — only food containers. That means that some uses of styrofoam as packaging will still be allowed.
Throughout the US, bills banning types of styrofoam have become popular in recent years because of the material’s lack of recyclability and its outsized impact on the environment. The Natural Resources Council of Maine said in a statement that styrofoam is among the 10 most polluted types of plastic and people in the state use 256 million pieces of the material each year.
Gov. Mills stressed the environmental harm caused by styrofoam in a press release and said that the ban was long overdue, noting that at least 14 towns has already banned it on a local level.
“Polystyrene cannot be recycled like a lot of other products, so while that cup of coffee may be finished, the Styrofoam cup it was in is not,” she said. “In fact, it will be around for decades to come and eventually it will break down into particles, polluting our environment, hurting our wildlife, and even detrimentally impacting our economy.”
She added that the state will work with businesses to find alternatives and promote “Maine-made” options.
Styrofoam is a particularly problematic form of plastic pollution. After being used once, it’s disposed of in the normal waste stream where it heads to a landfill, or it ends up as litter and contaminates local land ecosystems and bodies of water.
As styrofoam is exposed to rain, wind, and regular wear-and-tear, it breaks down into smaller and smaller microplastics that are regularly consumed by animals, causing a range of health problems.
Unlike other forms of plastic, styrofoam can’t be recycled, making it one of the least sustainable types of packaging.
Other states have made progress toward banning the material.
In early April, Maryland’s legislature passed a veto-proof bill targeting styrofoam food containers, but Gov. Larry Hogan has yet to sign it. New York similarly appears to be moving in the direction of a state-wide ban after approving a ban on single-use plastic bags.
The effort to rein in plastic pollution is championed around the world. The African Union has made great strides in banning various types of plastic, China cracked down on various forms of junk plastic after years of being the world’s leading importer of the stuff, and the European Union recently approved the most sweeping ban on single-use plastics in the world.