State Laws Putting a Stop to Polystyrene Containers

September 2019

With high demand for delivery and grab and go comes an increased volume of takeout packaging. Operators face growing concerns about the use of polystyrene containers, which are highly popular in foodservice, and their effects on the environment, plus the costs of eco-friendly replacements. As more states ban this material, many operators will have to adjust to new regulations.


Maine will be the first state where polystyrene containers can’t be sold or used in the foodservice industry, a law that will take effect at the beginning of 2020. This type of foam is sturdy and waterproof—two key qualities for delivery packaging—but it’s both difficult and expensive to recycle. If the foam disintegrates, fragments may end up in roadways and various water systems. Bills forbidding one-time-use food carriers made from polystyrene have also passed in Maryland, Connecticut and Vermont. Prohibiting the use of this material is just a start as consumers and legislators target single-use plastics, such as straws, utensils, stirring sticks and cups.


Other states that may follow suit include Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. These regulations are being adopted at the city level too. Polystyrene is banned in San Diego because of its link to hazardous effects on marine life and, consequently, seafood consumers. In New York City, operators face fines for distributing one-time-use polystyrene containers. City officials also launched a public education initiative to help facilitate the shift to alternatives.


Consumer pressure is one of the driving forces of this change. People want to financially support businesses without environmental repercussions. Nearly half of Americans said they would definitely or likely modify their spending habits to lessen their impact on the planet. This demand even prompted large chains to adopt new measures. Dunkin’ announced that it would replace its polystyrene foam cups with sustainable paper material by 2020, while McDonald’s eliminated all foam packaging in 2018.


In spite of this public crusade, the changes won’t be easy for foodservice operators. The material switchover is costly, and delivery is a huge obstacle for operators who want to cut down on packaging use. Those in the Restaurant Action Alliance have stated that 40–60% of their revenue comes from food served in polystyrene containers. Small business owners are concerned about the financial burden of this transition. Those who oppose the ban say it’ll do little to improve the environment while making it harder for mom-and-pop shops to operate.


If all polystyrene goes away, then what are the packaging alternatives? Compostable containers appear to be convenient solutions; however, some types require heavy-grade composters, which wouldn’t be sustainable for customers leaving the premises. Other earth-friendly materials are PLA-lined paper, bagasse and molded fiber. PLA-lined paper is made from cornstarch and can withstand a wide range of temperatures. It’s the eco-friendliest but costliest option. Bagasse and molded fiber can be shaped into bowls, plates and more. They’re microwavable—perfect for heating up leftovers—and not as pricey.


With more and more state lawmakers electing to prohibit the use of polystyrene containers, it’s important for operators to stay on top of new policies in the ever-changing industry and educate themselves about packaging alternatives.


Has your restaurant encountered a polystyrene ban? If so, how do you plan to address it? Let us know about it on Facebook or LinkedIn. Be sure to look through our Resource Center for the latest scoop on foodservice.




Lucas, Amelia. Maryland could be the first state to ban foam containers—here’s what that means for restaurants, CNBC, March 2019.


Jennings, Lisa. Maine becomes first state to ban polystyrene containers, Nation’s Restaurant News, May 2019.


Statement: Maryland’s plastic foam ban officially becomes law, Environment America, May 2019.


Connecticut House Passes Restaurant Styrofoam Ban, Total Food Service, June 2019.


Parker, Laura. Vermont adopts the most comprehensive plastics ban in U.S., National Geographic, June 2019.


Garrick, David. San Diego finalizes polystyrene ban that many restaurants oppose, San Diego Union-Tribune, January 2019.


Romeo, Peter. NYC to halt use of polystyrene food containers, Restaurant Business, June 2018.


Tanguay, Michael. Top 5 Styrofoam Alternatives (Advantages & Disadvantages), EBP Supply Solutions, July 2019.

Find Your Broker

Find Your Broker