Part of the Food Policy Snapshot Series
Policy name: Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) Food Service Products Ban (Chapter 579)
Overview: Maryland has banned the use of expanded polystyrene (EPS), commonly referred to under the trademarked name Styrofoam, for food service products.
Population: 6.1 million
Food policy category: Food services
Program goals: To reduce environmental pollution.
How it works: Starting on July 1, 2020, distributors of EPS products were prohibited from selling to restaurants, and as of October 1, restaurants are no longer able to use EPS products. Banned items include any single-use product made from EPS, such as cups, bowls, plates, and take-out containers intended for foods and beverages that are served or sold. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) recommends replacing these products with reusable ones when possible. Alternatively, plastic, paper, plant fiber, and aluminum are all acceptable materials. MDE also recommends taking into consideration whether or not the materials used are recyclable or compostable.
The law does not apply to packaging for raw meat or seafood, or prepackaged foods that were already in EPS containers, such as egg cartons, when purchased by a Maryland business.
Businesses affected by the law include manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. Retailers are defined as any entity selling or providing food, such as restaurants, business or institutional cafeterias, schools, and institutes of higher learning.
Businesses and schools may apply for a waiver lasting up to one year if compliance with the EPS ban would cause undue hardship. So far, MDE has received 54 applications for a waiver since the law was passed in 2019, but none were granted.
Enforcement of the ban will be at the county level, with each county using their own discretion to determine what department (e.g. department of health, environmental department) has that authority and how violations will be penalized.
Progress to date: The law was passed in April 2019, and was scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2020, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that date was pushed back to October 1. As noted above, though, businesses were still required to stop purchasing EPS products as of July 1, but they had until October to deplete their supply and restock with alternative materials.
Why it is important: EPS has many harmful effects on the environment. It takes up a lot of space in landfills, is not broken down easily, and the foam is such a lightweight material that it can be carried by the wind, littering the ground and polluting our oceans. It also crumbles easily into small pieces, making it likely that fish and animals will ingest it and get sick.
Furthermore, styrene, the chemical that is used to make EPS, is classified by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen. Breathing in styrene that has been released into the air during EPS production can have detrimental effects on human nervous systems, such as slow reaction times, vision impairments, and problems with balance. Styrene can also be leached into foods in EPS packaging; when humans eat that food, they may be ingesting small amounts of styrene.
Limiting the use of EPS products may help to clear out landfills and protect both wildlife and humans.
Program/Policy initiated: The policy went into effect on October 1, 2020.
Point of contact:
Maryland Department of the Environment
Resource Management Program
Email: [email protected]
Similar practices: Maine, New York, and Vermont have all passed similar bans on EPS; Vermont’s is the only other state law that has already gone into effect. Cities that have passed local EPS bans include Charleston, South Carolina; New York City, New York; San Diego, California; and Washington, DC.
Evaluation: The policy only recently went into effect and has not yet been evaluated. With dining restrictions and reduced profits related to the COVID-19 pandemic still taking place, some restaurants are concerned about the increased costs associated with EPS alternatives.