The Problem with Polystyrene and Other Non-Recyclable Plastics

Polystyrene and other non-recyclable plastics are a serious and readily preventable source of marine debris pollution. Many of these products are both lightweight and aerodynamic, so they are easily blown into gutters and storm drains even when "properly" disposed of. They are also very brittle, so when littered they quickly break into smaller and smaller pieces making cleanup impossible.

Once broken down in fresh water and marine environments, many of these products can kill fish and other wildlife because they resemble food and cause choking or starvation if ingested. 

Many of these products are not recycled anywhere in California, although the plastic industry has attempted to implement recycling programs that are simply way too expensive to be implemented in any meaningful way. Most curbside recycling programs in California do not accept any food containers made of polystyrene and other non-recyclable plastics because they contaminate recycling and are often accidentally littered in transportation. 

Polystyrene and other non-recyclable plastic food packaging is extremely costly to local governments, some of whom are required by law to achieve "zero" trash litter in impaired waterways. Litter clean-ups cost billions, and yet are still ineffective. In order to put an end to this type of plastic pollution, polystyrene and other non-recyclable plastic litter must be stopped at its source.

Alternative food packaging material that is compostable or recyclable is cost-competitive, and in some cases cheaper than polystyrene containers. Studies have shown that in jurisdictions where a ban on polystyrene food takeout containers is in place, the presence of these packaging alternatives in the waste stream does not increase as polystyrene is eliminated from the stream. 

If you are interested in leading a polystyrene ban campaign in your area check out the resources below and contact us!

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Polystyrene and Other Non-recyclable Plastic Food Packaging Pollution


Our overly packaged grab-and-go food culture might be convenient for consumers, but is extremely inconvenient for the environment and poses a significant hurdle to local communities' waste diversion goals. Litter characterization studies across the country have recognized fast food restaurants as the primary identifiable source of urban litter, and the most abundant type of non-cigarette litter as fast food packaging, which includes foamed polystyrene. Very little paper or cardboard food packaging, and almost no fast food plastic is currently being diverted from landfills. Frustrated with the increasing amount of this non-recyclable takeout food packaging waste in our landfills, streets, storm drains, and eventually marine environment, local governments across the nation are prohibiting its use as disposable food packaging.

These plastics, impractical to recycle due to their light weight, are the most common form of marine debris and cost local governments millions in storm drain clean-ups. These costs are especially high for communities with impaired waterways, such as Ballona Creek (pictured).

Polystyrene is one of our country's most ubiquitous examples of over-processed, overabundant and unnecessary throw-away packaging, and also one of the most costly.  Like many areas of waste generation, a few simple, economical changes in the way the fast food industry produces and handles its waste could change what currently is a major source of unrecyclable, permanent litter to a model for other businesses.

You as a consumer can refuse to support the stream of polystyrene and other non-recyclable plastic waste into our communities by choosing its economical and recyclable alternatives instead.

Learn more about a 2013 statewide measure to target fast food packaging.

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