Expanded polystyrene foam, commonly but inaccurately known by the trade name Styrofoam (which is a material produced for building insulation or craftwork,), has been in use since the 1960s. Because of its light weight, impact absorption, insulation qualities, and low price, it has been particularly popular for making disposable packaging and food ware. Of late, polystyrene foam service ware has become a concern for the environment as well as human health and safety. It is one of the top 10 contributors to environmental litter. It is not biodegradable, is resistant to photo-oxidization, and is difficult to recycle. Currently in Maine, polystyrene foam is not collected for recycling and must be treated as trash. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Toxicology Program has listed styrene, a chemical found in expanded polystyrene foam, as a reasonably anticipated human carcinogen that can be transferred from expanded polystyrene foam containers into food and beverages that people consume.
Polystyrene Foam Food Service Container Ban
To protect people and the environment, reduce litter, and keep polystyrene out of the waste stream, in 2019 the Maine legislature passed a statewide ban on certain expanded polystyrene foam products 38 MRSA Chapter 15-A. This law bans the use of disposable polystyrene foam food service ware including any container, bowl, plate, tray, carton, cup, lid, sleeve, stirrer or other item used to contain, transport, serve or consume prepared foods, with the exception of home use and use by certain exempted entities. The Department has prepared a guidance/FAQ fact sheet on the Disposable Food Service Containers law, which may be helpful in understanding what the law requires of entities who must comply.
Under this law, all businesses and organizations that meet the definition of a food establishment; eating establishment; agricultural fair; farmers' market; food pantry, church, or community organization that provides food or beverages without charge; boarding home, retirement home, independent living place or nursing home can no longer use polystyrene foam food service ware. This includes not only restaurants, stores, and the entities listed above, but a wide variety of eating establishments in the entertainment, hospitality, recreation, and tourism industries; catering establishments; correctional facilities; hospital cafeterias; mobile eating places; public and private schools; and workplace cafes.
In general, most stores, food packing facilities, and home meal delivery businesses meet the definition of a food establishment. There are some exemptions for certain uses, such as for foam coolers for processing or shipping seafood. Definitions and exemptions are described in the guidance/FAQ fact sheet.
Some of the most commonly asked questions about this law are answered below:
- Question: Are compostable, plant-based, or biodegradable disposable foam food service containers exempt under this law?
- Answer: Whether derived from petroleum or plant-based sources, even compostable or biodegradable foam disposable food service containers are typically made with a styrene additive in order to provide extruded foam with the desired expansion properties and are therefore not exempt. The Department urges caution when seeking replacement products as those that closely resemble polystyrene foam are likely to be non-exempt.
- Question: Can existing stock of polystyrene foam be used up if it was purchased prior to July 1, 2021?
- Answer: No, there is no provision in the law to use up existing stock after the law is in effect.
- Question: Are there entities that are exempt from complying with this law?
- Answer: Yes, licensed hospitals and any "meals on wheels" programs that receive funding from the Department of Health and Human Services are exempt from this law
Effective Date & Temporary Exemption
Due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection delayed enforcement of the law that bans the use of this product from its original effective date of January 1, 2021. The law will be enforced as of July 1, 2021.
Emergency legislation providing a temporary exemption for polystyrene foam packaging for meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and eggs was passed in June of 2021. This temporary exemption will be repealed on July 1, 2025, allowing additional time for companies using polystyrene foam packaging for these "raw proteins" to find alternative materials to package their products. See H.P. 1214, L.D. 1631, An Act To Amend the Laws Banning Polystyrene Foam To Exclude Packaging for Meat, Poultry, Fish, Seafood and Eggs (pdf) for more information.
Other Polystyrene Foam uses
This ban does not affect the use of polystyrene foam for other non-food service container uses such as plates, cups, and coolers for home use. Nor does it ban the use of polystyrene foam "packing peanuts". However, because of the non-recyclable nature of polystyrene foam and the costs associated with trash disposal, its use is discouraged.
Currently, the best way to "recycle" polystyrene foam is through re-use. When purchasing and using polystyrene foam products, consider if and how they can be re-used. How to recycle packing peanuts.
Other Sources of Polystyrene Foam Information
Maine is not the only State that has banned polystyrene foam food service ware; New York and Maryland (and others) have also banned polystyrene foam. Vermont has banned certain polystyrene foam products as part of their "Single-Use" Products law.