Trash Researcher Explains Why Banning Polystyrene Won’t Do Any Good

Environmental activists in California have been trying to ensure a statewide ban on polystyrene foam. To their dismay, California Legislature did not pass the bill banning polystyrene and according to a trash researcher, this was for the best.

Litter has been collected at ocean, beaches, roadsides, and storm drains in California. Some believe that banning polystyrene foam will fix this problem; however, the facts say something different.

Banning “only one material will not reduce the amount of overall litter in our waterways or bring us closer to a zero-waste goal,” says Steve Stein, an environmental scientist who researches litter in California and throughout the U.S.

Polystyrene food containers are a minimal component of liter and substituting another alternative will not help us get any closer to our goal. This ban would only result in the substitution of other products that would be discarded in the exact same way.

“The data I have reviewed from L.A. County and nationwide consistently show that litter on our streets and trash in our waterways comprise a broad range of items representing what people typically use in their daily lives. All types of materials are occasionally discarded improperly without regard to the impacts. I spent two days surveying litter in the Los Angeles River earlier this year, and I found that the trash there was a snapshot of what’s typically discarded throughout the county,” says Stein.

His research shows two very important points.

First, the food packaging material observed in the L.A. River consisted of more than half non-polystyrene products that would remain unaffected by the ban. He measured this by count, weight and volume.

Second, more than half of the polystyrene products in the River were not food-service products, but foam transportation packaging materials used to protect certain shipments from breaking. “These findings are not unique. Through the years, studies by my research organization have consistently shown polystyrene food-service products to be such a small portion of litter that banning them would not meaningfully reduce trash volume,” says Stein.

Stein’s findings are not hypothetical or probable; they are facts and they have real world consequences. Instead of banning polystyrene products, cities should build up their platforms around the data that Stein researched. This will then create and outcome that is practical and beneficial for everyone.

Stein believes that litter can be reduced in a few ways.

First, cities need to discover where their litter accumulates the most. By doing this, they will understand the cause of the littering. Littering can by caused by pedestrians, poorly covered trash, construction vehicles, construction sites, or homeless camps. The how and the why are very important.

Second, cities need to create better education programs in order to teach its residents about the importance of recycling. Addressing the problem of litter will lead to better habits and will inspire those to keep their city clean.

“Education and enforcement are tools that will help reduce all types of litter,” says Stein.

In order to achieve our goal of a zero-waste society, we must put our efforts to more comprehensive methods, rather than placing a ban on a single material that is unlikely to reduce the overall amount of litter.

California Foam Bans