On January 1, 2016 a ban on the use of Styrofoam containers went into effect in the city of Washington, DC. This new law will prohibit restaurants and local business from using single use Styrofoam (technically speaking, expanded polystyrene foam products) containers to package food and drinks, typically used for take-out orders or to take home leftovers. According to one estimate in a private blog, there are similar bans in effect in more than 70 cities including New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. In New York City alone, 28,500 tons of expanded Styrofoam was collected in 2012. About 90% of this material was from food and drink related containers.
I couldn’t help but smile when I read this story as a remembered back in the late 1980s when CHEJ (then CCHW) kicked off a national campaign against McDonald’s to get the mega food giant to stop using Styrofoam clam shells for all its food packaging. We called this the “McToxics Campaign” and groups all over the country participated including grassroots environmental health activists, students, churches, annual rights activists and advocates of healthy food. These groups, individually and in coalition, picketed local restaurants, fought for local ordinances banning Styrofoam, launched boycotts and engaged in send-it-back campaigns to send the message to McDonalds that they wanted the company to be a corporate leader for positive change, rather than a symbol of our throw-away society. And it worked! After a little over 3 years, McDonalds caved in, marking one of the biggest victories of the grassroots environmental health movement. On November 1, 1990, McDonalds’ announced it would end nearly all Styrofoam packaging use in U.S. restaurants within 60 days.
As anticipated, when McDonalds made its announcement, other companies would follow its lead. Jack-In-the-Box followed suit almost immediately, and soon most other fast food restaurants also stopped using Styrofoam. Although many small restaurants and local businesses continued to use Styrofoam, the message continues to grow that this toxic plastic has no place in our society. The many toxic substances generated and released during production, the formation of toxic chemicals when it is burned and the difficulties in recycling and disposal of this material is what drove this campaign and continue to be an issue today as restaurants and businesses search for options to deliver food and drinks.
Fortunately there are better options and better alternatives that don’t cause the public health and environmental risks that this plastic does. Cheers to the growing list of cities, towns and municipalities that are deciding one jurisdiction at a time, to move away from this toxic plastic. May there be many more in the coming years.