How to Save the Foam Food Packaging Industry

We are swimming in foam and other plastic food packaging—literally.

Go into the vast majority of food service establishments in Miami or the Florida Keys, and you will be served with disposable polystyrene foam cups, foam take-out containers, and foam to-go boxes loaded into plastic bags. Florida passed a law in 2008 prohibiting its municipalities from enacting plastic bag regulations designed to remove single-use plastic bags from the market.  This Wednesday, the Florida House of Representatives is voting on an amendment to House Bill 7007, which would preclude municipal bans on polystyrene foam in Florida as well.

Unfortunately polystyrene foam and other plastics are showing up on the Florida coastline at increasing rates. Visitors to state beaches in the Florida Keys sit next to sea wrack filled with plastic garbage and the city of Miami has desperately posted signs prohibiting visitors from bringing polystyrene foam onto the sand.  And I personally caught a plastic bag in my hand while swimming off of Miami Beach recently.

According to Surfrider Foundation’s Regional Manager in Florida, Holly Parker, twenty four municipalities in the state have passed resolutions to regain their right to regulate plastic bags (Miami-Dade County is voting on the issue this week).  And six municipalities passed local ordinances regulating polystyrene foam.  Orlando is poised to be next unless it is stopped by the state’s attempt to protect the status quo.

The raw inputs for polystyrene foam are waste products from petroleum refining.

Just miles to the east in the Gulf of Mexico, we are hard at work producing the raw inputs for polystyrene foam and other single-use plastics by drilling for oil. This is no coincidence. Polystyrene foam and plastic bags are made from the waste by-product of petroleum refining. It is possible to convert petroleum by-products into durable and reclaimable goods. However, we are instead supporting poor design choices by converting it into disposable plastic goods that make their way into the ocean and (if we are lucky) float up on the beach for us to heed notice.

The solution to the problem is not to stick our heads in the sand and allow the petroleum and packaging industries to codify the status quo into state law. (Georgia was hit by a similar but failed attempt to preclude municipal regulation, and a new bill introduced in South Carolina is attempting to do the same).

Inevitably, enough plastics and polystyrene foam will wash ashore that the tourists basking in the sun will become disgusted and outraged, creating massive losses in tourism revenues, and leading to a full and outright ban of disposables in coastal states such as Florida (this has already occurred in California). And where will the polystyrene foam industry be then? Wiped into oblivion almost overnight.  Simply because they are unprepared for the inevitable backlash from our rising environmental woes.

So how do we save the foam packaging industry? By passing laws that require their packaging to be biodegradable (or better yet–compostable!) and non-toxic. And by requiring the petroleum industry to find sustainable uses for their by-products, keeping them out of our landfills and waterways.

Google alternatives to polystyrene foam packaging and a number of alternatives pop up. There is plant-based cellulose. There is mushroom-based cellulose. Just to name a couple. And finding a workable alternative for the average manufacturer would take approximately six months and possibly up to two years to fully implement, based on commercial precedents.

The biggest challenge to getting alternatives out into the market is the lack of government intervention.

Ask any design engineer why they are not using a sustainable alternative to an non-sustainable material and they will tell you one of two things–it is either the high-volume availability or cost. Both factors are driven by market demand. When demand is low, the per unit production costs are higher, making prices higher. And no one is investing in capacity. If demand is high, on the other hand, investments into high volume production drive costs down.

That is where government regulation comes in–to put everyone in the industry on a level playing field by creating sufficient demand in sustainable technologies to make them cost-effective and accessible at sufficient production volume.

Regulation would remove hidden subsidies on polystyrene foam packaging.

The raw inputs for creating today’s polystyrene foam are ultra cheap because they are a waste product of petroleum refining. That industry is happy to sell these raw inputs at a very low price because if it didn’t sell these chemicals off, it would have to pay for their disposal. So we’ve inadvertently allowed a hidden subsidy on polystyrene foam packaging by allowing the petroleum industry to sell its waste by-products to the foam packaging industry.

Without government intervention to remove this hidden subsidy, it is difficult for any given company to do the right thing without taking an economic hit. If you are a disposable packaging manufacturer, it is hard to go with something other than petroleum-based, non-biodegradable and toxic polystyrene foam, because the stuff is sooo cheap!

It is the role of government to correct market failure by steering our economic ship in the right direction. Polystyrene foam washing ashore on Florida’s beaches is a total market failure. The intervention needed here is regulatory standards in both the packaging and petroleum industries. Otherwise our government is sure to put the polystyrene foam industry out of business through inaction.

**To take immediate action and voice your opposition to the Florida amendment that would preclude municipal regulation of polystyrene foam, visit the Surfrider Foundation action page by clicking here.**