What type of litter are we actually trying to prevent from polluting our waters?!

Trash on the banks of the Anacostia River.

On Tuesday January 20, the Montgomery County Council can help the Anacostia River in a big way, by voting to ban the use and sale of plastic foam food service products in the county and replacing them with compostable or recyclable products. Far too many of these containers are fouling our waters, including the Anacostia River and the Chesapeake Bay. ... Did you notice we didn’t refer to these containers as Styrofoam? ‘Why?’ you might ask.

It has become the societal norm in the U.S. to call any type of plastic foam product “Styrofoam,” but what is this term actually? STYROFOAM™ is a trademarked term owned by The Dow Chemical Company and the product was first used in watercraft applications by the U.S. military. Now STYROFOAM™ Brand products (usually dyed blue) are primarily used for home and building insulation, but they have never been used for single-use food and beverage containers (as seen in the photo above), among other things. Read this article published by The Washington Post for more on the misuse of the term.

How did this term become so widely misused? We don’t really know for sure but it is likely that because all of these products are made from the same material, polystyrene (manufactured from petroleum and synthetic chemicals), and because STYROFOAM™ Brand products were among the first to be widely used of their kind, the term got tacked onto anything remotely resembling the product. Further complicating the misuse of the term is that there are also different types of polystyrene products, meaning their composition and chemical properties are slightly different. We admit we’ve definitely misused this term in conversations and our communications materials, but our New Year’s Resolution is to stop that filthy habit!

Alright, so what do we call that (usually) white foam stuff being littered and polluting our streams and rivers? Plastic foam is the easiest way to identify what we are talking about. Plastic foam cups, plates, packaging, etc. Think about it, if you simply switch plastic foam for Styrofoam, will the person or audience know what you are talking about? Of course! It’s that easy.

Why does all of this really matter? Thinking about the words and products we use and communicating what we mean really does matter. First, STYROFOAM™ is proprietary and should not take the heat for something it is not! Though that is not to say it is not harmful in some way; it is a polystyrene material after all. Second, the language used in legislation needs to be specific and correct. If we drafted a bill to ban the sale and use of STYROFOAM™, we would be trying to ban the wrong products (building insulation material, etc.). We want to ban expanded polystyrene foam food service products and packaging material; this is what gets written into a bill.

Why do advocates want to ban convenience-driven plastic foam products? There are so many reasons. Probably the two largest of them all being that they are not sustainable products and have chemical properties linked to health complications. They are not easily recycled; most jurisdictions do not accept them in their recycling programs. They break into tiny pieces that stick around for hundreds of years. Wildlife often mistakes the pieces for food. The pieces can rapidly absorb other toxic chemicals from the surrounding environment posing higher health risks to aquatic life; check out this article for more information on that.

Those white specks are tiny pieces of plastic foam that probably
once looked like those containers in the first photo.

Are there plastic foam bans in jurisdictions within the Anacostia River Watershed? Yes and we are not the only ones. Check out this page for information about bans in the U.S. (New York City moved forward with their ban last week after a year of failing to figure out how to make plastic foam recycling feasible!). The District of Columbia banned plastic foam food and beverage containers this past summer. Montgomery County Council is considering a ban (which includes the sale of foam loose-fill packaging) and will likely vote on their legislation next Tuesday! Show your support for this one by urging your county council member to vote for Bill 41-14 and attending the session on January 20 at 9:30 am being held at 100 Maryland Ave. in Rockville, Maryland.



Browse our newsletter archive to read articles previously published in our quarterly newsletter, Voice of the River!


Stay informed of the latest watershed issues by subscribing to our free email updates & event announcements.