Fact file: Polystyrene foam bans reduce litter and protect wildlife

State and local laws are keeping foam litter out of our parks, rivers and oceans.

Louis Sokolow
Louis Sokolow

Former Policy Associate, Frontier Group

Polystyrene foam containers are great for keeping your takeout order hot, even in cooler weather. But once you’re done with your meal, you’re left with a piece of foam that can’t be easily reused or recycled

And it’s not just takeout containers; add in packing peanuts, egg cartons and billions of Styrofoam cups, and that’s a lot of foam. Three million tons of polystyrene foam are produced in the United States every year – enough foam to fill AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys, almost five times.

Far too much of this foam becomes litter in our communities, polluting our roadsides, parks, rivers and beaches. The good news is that bans on certain polystyrene foam products in states and cities across the country have proven effective at reducing this litter.

Bans on polystyrene foam are particularly critical in coastal areas, where foam litter can easily reach the ocean. In California, polystyrene foam makes up about 15% of litter in storm drains and is the “second most common form of beach debris.”[1] That means a lot of discarded foam ends up in the ocean, where it gradually breaks down into smaller pieces

Since polystyrene foam is not readily biodegradable, those increasingly small pieces can continue to pollute the ocean and endanger marine life for hundreds of years. Turtles, mammals, seabirds and other marine animals eat this foam – mistaking it for their food – and can suffer blocked digestive tracts that can keep them from getting the nutrients they need and cause starvation. To make matters worse, chemicals that leach from polystyrene products can be toxic to marine life.

Polystyrene bans work

The best way to protect marine animals and keep our communities clean is to produce and use less polystyrene foam in the first place. Studies of polystyrene bans show that they consistently reduce associated litter. 

Polystyrene bans are catching on across the country, with Colorado set to ban polystyrene food containers in January 2024 and Washington expanding its polystyrene ban to include containers and other food service products in June 2024. If polystyrene foam bans elsewhere in the U.S. are any indication, those states can soon look forward to enjoying parks, rivers and streams with fewer bits of plastic foam, while helping to reduce the burden of foam pollution on our precious wildlife and ecosystems.  



[1] Polystyrene foam comes in two primary forms – expanded and extruded. This source refers to expanded polystyrene foam, or EPS, which is used for many of the most commonly encountered foam products, including takeout containers, cups and packing peanuts. Extruded polystyrene foam, or XPS, has other applications like home and building insulation and architectural building models. References to polystyrene foam throughout this fact file primarily refer to expanded polystyrene foam. 


Louis Sokolow

Former Policy Associate, Frontier Group

Celeste Meiffren-Swango

State Director, Environment Oregon

As director of Environment Oregon, Celeste develops and runs campaigns to win real results for Oregon's environment. She has worked on issues ranging from preventing plastic pollution, stopping global warming, defending clean water, and protecting our beautiful places. Celeste's organizing has helped to reduce kids' exposure to lead in drinking water at childcare facilities in Oregon, encourage transportation electrification, ban single-use plastic grocery bags, defend our bedrock environmental laws and more. She is also the author of the children's book, Myrtle the Turtle, empowering kids to prevent plastic pollution. Celeste lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and two daughters, where they frequently enjoy the bounty of Oregon's natural beauty.

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