Delaware is moving to ban polystyrene. (Photo by Caleb Lucas on Unsplash)

Polystyrene ban passes House committee

Sam HautGovernment, Headlines

Senate Bill 51, which previously passed the Senate 14 to 5, would ban beverage, cocktail picks and sandwich picks made of plastic, and food packaging made of polystyrene foam.

The bill would exempt straws attached to an item such as a juice box, straws being used in a hospital or long-term care facility, and polystyrene from pre-packaged food, healthcare providers, fire companies or nonprofit organizations.

Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, said that 96% of polystyrene makes it into landfills, and that heating up those plastic containers is dangerous.

When I went to a talk at the Youth Environmental Summit and my presentation partner shared the health problems with [polystyrene], I went home with the fear of God,” he said. “And I said, I’m never ever going to use that polystyrene, use that styrofoam in a microwave. So there are significant health benefits to this as well.”

Rep. Mike Smith, R-Pike Creek, said that he wished there weren’t any exemptions in the bill.

If it is about the environment, why have the exemptions? Big restaurants, they’re not going to worry about that,” he said. “To me, I don’t want to make it political by having exemptions. I’d rather amend it to make everyone have to go through the same thing from more of a fairness perspective.”

Baumbach said exemptions are needed to get votes, adding that changes can be made before the bill gets implemented on July 1, 2025.

As we say, this is sausage making,” Baumbach said. “So exemptions often come up to vote count. What do we need to do to get the votes and tradeoffs were identified, and which exemptions were necessary, which ones were not necessary. … If we find that we’re missing an important exemption, or we have one that really is not that important, we have two legislative years to come back and make refinements.”

Public comments on polystyrene

During public comment on the bill, five people representing restaurant and business organizations spoke against it, while six people with environmental groups spoke in favor.

Josh Young, a government affairs senior director at the American Chemistry Council, said the bill will be too costly and won’t reduce the environmental damage of polystyrene.

A recent study in Maryland estimated that for every $1 spent on expanded polystyrene food service products, replacement alternatives would cost an average of $1.85, almost double,” Young said. “A minimum recycling rate could encourage more items to be recycled in the state and avoid many of the pitfalls this legislation could bring.”

Keith Curry, distribution manager in Delaware for Dart Container, said the bill could impact their workforce and restaurants.

It has been stated that polystyrene is a significant portion of the waste stream, but it did not give a percentage of what that waste stream is,” Curry said. “Our environmental regulatory group did a closer audit to understand that component. Polystyrene food service contributes less than 1% to the waste stream total in the United States.”  

Baumbach’s response: Polystyrene may make up a small portion of waste by weight, by volume it takes up much more space.

Last I checked when we were looking at extending the height of the landfill up in Wilmington, it wasn’t based on the weight of the landfill, it was based on the height, it was based on the volume,” he said. “Picture eight million tons of something that weighs something like a feather. Awful lot of volume. So I think that’s really important to keep in mind.”

In 2018, 5,200 tons of polystyrene waste was produced by residents and businesses, according to the Delaware Solid Waste Authority. Just 16 tons was recycled.

Dustyn Thompson, director of the Delaware chapter of the Sierra Club, said they support the bill because of the detrimental impact that polystyrene has on the environment.

We’ve learned that such practices have absolutely been detrimental to human health and the environment,” Thompson said. “While some would argue that SB 51 is a step too far, and somehow it takes away the consumer choice, it is simply not the case. Consumers simply never made this choice. Similarly in the 1980s we banned other petrochemicals, specifically CFCs, because of their effect on the ozone layer.”

Rep. Mike Smith, R-Pike Creek, said that while he was going to vote against the bill, he voted for it and he hopes to work with Baumbach to put forward an amendment to remove the bill’s exemptions

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Trey Paradee, D-Dover, and has 26 additional sponsors and cosponsors, all Democrats except for Smith.

The bill awaits a vote by the whole House.

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