First Bags Then Straws: The Next Front in the War on Plastic

States are wading into what used to be a local issue, and styrofoam containers are their next target in the effort to reduce waste that pollutes the environment.
by | June 6, 2019 AT 12:14 PM
Trash in the ocean.
About 18 billion pounds of plastic end up in the world’s oceans every year. (Shutterstock)

SPEED READ:

  • Maine and Maryland are the first states to ban styrofoam containers.
  • Vermont could be next.
  • Other states, and cities, have banned plastic straws and plastic bags.
 

Before this year, no state had passed a law to ban the use of polystyrene take-out containers. Now, lawmakers in Maryland and Maine are arguing over which of their laws is really the country’s “first,” and officials in other states are considering joining them.

Maine’s law to block local retailers from using polystyrene, or styrofoam, containers was the first signed into law. But Maryland’s measure will take effect in July 2020 -- six months before Maine’s.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, signed the measure -- which applies to restaurants, grocery stores and other “covered establishments” -- on April 30.

“Polystyrene cannot be recycled like a lot of other products, so while that cup of coffee may be finished, the styrofoam cup it was in is not,” Mills said at the time. “In fact, it will be around for decades to come and eventually it will break down into particles, polluting our environment, hurting our wildlife and even detrimentally impacting our economy.”

In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan let the legislation there become law without his signature in late May.

“Maine’s state motto is ‘Dirigo,’ to lead,” says state Rep. Stanley Zeigler. “That’s what we did. Maryland sat on its [legislation] too long.”

The good-natured ribbing between Maryland and Maine legislators underscores the fast-moving shift to ban single-use plastic products -- and not just city by city. The most-targeted items are styrofoam containers, plastic straws and plastic bags.

“I think 2018 was a tipping point in the public view,” says Maryland Del. Brooke Lierman.

Lierman says people are growing alarmed as they read stories about the impact of plastic on the environment, including a cover story on last June’s issue of National Geographic about the 18 billion pounds of plastic that end up in the world’s oceans every year. China’s decision to stop importing many recyclable goods from the United States has also raised concerns about how much ends up in landfills.

“[It] has brought home the need for state legislatures and for departments of public works to really double down on the ‘reduce’ side of the equation rather than trying to solely rely on the ‘recycle’ side of the equation,” she says.

 

Statewide Bans

While plastic bans have long been debated at the local level, they are increasingly a topic in state capitols, too.

In 2014, California was the first state to ban single-use plastic bags. New York passed one this year. Hawaii has had a de facto statewide bag ban since 2015 because all of its counties prohibit them. Delaware and Maine, among others, could still pass bag bans this year.

At least a dozen states, meanwhile, have taken the opposite approach by prohibiting local governments from banning bags.

California also led the charge against plastic straws, becoming to first state to ban them in restaurants last year.

“Plastic has helped advance innovation in our society, but our infatuation with single-use convenience has led to disastrous consequences,” said then-Gov. Jerry Brown when signing the measure. “Plastics, in all forms -- straws, bottles, packaging, bags, etc. -- are choking the planet.”

But Alex Truelove, the zero-waste director at US PIRG, a national liberal interest group that helped push the state bans, considers styrofoam to be “public enemy No. 1” when it comes to plastic pollutants.

“It’s lightweight, so it floats easily and travels through waterways easily. It breaks apart easily,” he says. “It’s mistaken for food by all sorts of animals. And it’s still one of the more common kinds of plastics out there that we see in beach clean ups.”

 

Pushback From Businesses

But Cailey Locklair, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, says banning one type of material or product won’t solve the pollution crisis; it will just change the kinds of pollution while adding costs to businesses and customers.

Retailers might switch from styrofoam cups, for example, to paper cups lined with a kind of plastic known as polyethylene. But those paper cups are difficult to recycle (and not cost-effective either), which is why Starbucks has been trying for years -- so far unsuccessfully -- to replace them with a more environmentally friendly product.

Locklair says it’s a “laughable” idea that businesses and customers will suddenly switch to reusable items just because one type of disposable containers has been outlawed.

“We’re not going to get there by banning single-use plastics one by one. There has got to be a bigger and more comprehensive plan,” she says. “That same individual who had a polystyrene cup in their hand and tossed it on the ground, well, now they don’t have a polystyrene cup, so they’re going to toss their polyethylene-lined cup on the ground.”

To some extent, Truelove agrees. But he says targeting small-but-symbolic sources of pollution is part of a longer-term strategy.

“Once we get rid of foam containers, we want to ask: what’s next? Banning bags, foam or straws doesn’t solve the pollution problem at once, but it helps people think about more systematic things,” says Truelove.

In Vermont, lawmakers passed comprehensive legislation that would ban single-use plastic grocery bags and styrofoam containers, charge 10 cents for paper bags, and limit restaurants' plastic straw giveaways to people who request one. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, indicated earlier that he would likely approve it.

Aside from the environmental impact, the statewide bans could put Maryland businesses at a disadvantage, Locklair says. The U.S. Constitution prohibits states from interfering with interstate commerce, so Maryland’s ban only affects certain products that are produced in-state. Poultry farms on the Eastern Shore, for example, will have to package their eggs in materials that are more expensive than styrofoam. But out-of-state farms can still sell their cheaper, foam-wrapped eggs at local grocery stores.

 

Local Plastic Bans

Before states started banning single-use plastics, these policies were confined to the cities, prompting polarizing reactions from state legislators.

In more liberal states -- like Maine, Maryland and Vermont -- the local bans made it easier for the state bans to pass because lawmakers could argue they were just setting statewide standards rather than forcing retailers to comply with a mishmash of local regulations.

More conservative states, though, have responded to local bans by preempting cities' rights to impose them.

When Norman, Okla., officials said they wanted to put a nickel tax on single-use plastic bags, state lawmakers there responded by taking that power away from cities. The legislation, which was signed in April, not only outlaws bag bans, it also prevents cities from taxing, regulating or prohibiting containers made of cloth, paper, cardboard, aluminum, glass and, of course, polystyrene foam.

“You have to have some kind of uniformity of how you do business from city to city and county to county throughout our state,” GOP Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt told local TV station KFOR. “If there is anything in the future that needs to change as far as a state law in Oklahoma, we can change it through the legislature.”