Should the state prohibit businesses from selling or dispensing food in disposable polystyrene containers?


Clint Richmond

Member of Brookline Solid Waste Committee, executive committee member of Massachusetts Sierra Club

Clint Richmond
Clint Richmond

Polystyrene is one of the most common types of plastic. In single-use food ware, rigid and foam polystyrene are formed into utensils, straws, cups, trays, and clamshell containers. Polystyrene is identified by recycling code number 6.

As a harmful material, polystyrene should be banned immediately from most consumer applications starting with containers used to serve or dispense prepared food. Polystyrene, as the name implies, is based on styrene, which can have effects on the nervous system and has been listed by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen. Styrene in turn is based on benzene, which is known to cause cancer in humans. Styrene can leach out of food ware, especially when it contains fatty food.


In addition to health risks, consider polystyrene’s environmental hazards. Like most synthetic plastics, polystyrene is effectively non-biodegradable, generating trash, litter, and injuring many types of animals from birds to whales. Plastics break down to lightweight fragments that are highly mobile in the environment, especially polystyrene foam, which can become airborne.

Polystyrene is not a permitted material in any municipal curbside recycling program in Massachusetts. And no amount of recycling can offset the damage from single-use plastics derived from the large-scale extraction of oil and natural gas. Plastics increase the demand for fossil fuels and add to their climate impacts.

Polystyrene foam was the first plastic to be banned by certain localities back in 1987 because of the petrochemical gas additive used at the time. However, despite readily available inexpensive alternatives, polystyrene use has grown.

Massachusetts has been a leader in addressing this issue. Following Brookline’s local polystyrene food container ban in 2012, a similar state bill was introduced and has been in every subsequent legislative session but the current bills (H3502 and S1205) have still not passed.


Currently, 47 Massachusetts communities representing one million people have banned some form of polystyrene at food and retail establishments, and in many cases have also required more sustainable alternatives that are reusable, natural or biodegradable. A potential Boston ordinance would provide momentum to this campaign. For all the reasons listed, the Sierra Club, MassPIRG and others are actively supporting these efforts.


Margaret Gorman

Senior director for the Northeast region of the American Chemistry Council, which has member companies in the Greater Boston area

Margaret Gorman
Margaret Gorman

We have all seen polystyrene food service containers discarded on the street as litter. The American Chemistry Council has long understood this to be a problem and has been working on solutions. Unfortunately, bans of polystyrene food service containers or packaging are not the right answer because among other reasons, plastic bans do little to reduce the amount of litter and are likely to just change the type of material in the waste stream, as one California agency found.

Polystyrene foam is an efficient and cost-effective product used by thousands of food service and other businesses across the Greater Boston area and throughout the state of Massachusetts. Alternative products do not always work as well as polystyrene and can be much more expensive, which is difficult for businesses operating on razor thin margins.

Beyond increased monetary costs, my organization has found in several studies that that common alternatives to plastic packaging actually increase environmental costs. Alternatives have been tied to increased greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, and an overall larger environmental footprint.


Polystyrene food service containers also play an important role in keeping us safe from foodborne illnesses. The United States Food and Drug Administration states in its Food Code, “In situations in which the reuse of multi-use items could result in foodborne illness to consumers, single-service and single-use articles must be used to ensure safety.”

If banning polystyrene is not the solution, what is the solution? One word – recycling.

Polystyrene can be recycled and in some places it is already being recycled. There are many advancements being made all the time in recycling that are making the process more efficient, cost-effective, and increasing the materials that can be economically recycled. Advanced plastics recycling technologies are starting to take shape across the country with $4.2 billion invested in the United States since July 2017. The innovative technologies have the ability to break down used plastics into their original components and recycle polystyrene foam food service containers back into useful products.

Instead of focusing on banning products, the Massachusetts Legislature should work to increase funding for recycling efforts and building a more circular economy for plastics.

This is not a scientific survey. Please only vote once.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.