In the summer of 1988, Portland City Commissioner Bob Koch introduced an ordinance to ban the use of polystyrene foam (PSF) for prepared food in restaurants, grocery stores and other retail establishments. He hoped that this would address perceived environmental issues with PSF, commonly known by the trade name Styrofoam. However, the proposal was quickly withdrawn when Commissioner Koch discovered that the alleged problems with PSF did not actually exist and that the measure had the potential to increase rather than decrease environmental impacts.

However, Commissioner Earl Blumenauer, backed by some local environmentalists, took up the fallen banner. After more than a year of debate, Portland’s City Council passed an ordinance requiring food vendors to discontinue the use of PSF and to switch to the only available substitutes for PSF at that time: #6 clear plastic (polystyrene) and coated paper. The ordinance went into effect January 1, 1990 and covers bakery and deli products, fruits, vegetables, frozen yogurt, ice cream, coffee, tea and soft drinks that are processed or prepared on-site.

Eighteen years later, overwhelming evidence shows that Commissioner Koch was correct. Alternatives to PSF food service containers actually carry more environmental impacts than PSF. At the same time, the law drives up costs to businesses and consumers and negatively affects the business environment in Portland. As a means of educating the public, the ban fails because it encourages the perpetuation of misunderstanding among the citizens of Portland.

This paper will discuss the current effects of the PSF ban, contrast the arguments for the ban with its real damaging impacts on the environment, and finally look at the mis-educational effects of the ban and offer opportunities for change.

—> View full PDF document

About the authors: Margaret Hardy conducted research on this paper during a research fellowship with Cascade Policy Institute in 2005. Ms. Hardy is a recent graduate of Georgetown University. John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute.
Acknowledgments: This paper updates an earlier paper on the same subject written by Angela Eckhardt for Cascade in 1998. The authors also wish to thank Nancy Wheaton for field assistance and fact checking and Kathryn Hickok for editorial review.

About Cascade Policy Institute: Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s premier policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility and economic opportunity. To that end, the Institute publishes policy studies, provides public speakers, organizes community forums and sponsors educational programs.

Cascade Policy Institute is a tax-exempt educational organization as defined under IRS code 501(c)(3). Cascade neither solicits nor accepts government funding and is supported by individual, foundation and business contributions. Nothing appearing in this document is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of Cascade or its donors. The views expressed herein are the author’s own. Copyright 2007 by Cascade Policy Institute. All rights reserved.

6 thoughts on “Sustainable Failure: Why Portland's Polystyrene Foam Ban Should Be Repealed

  1. When the PSF ban went into place, I started using a paper cup for the morning hot chocolate. However the single cup was too hot to hold, so I slipped the cup into a second paper cup. So all these years, I have been using two paper cups, where one PSF cup would have sufficed.

  2. As a free market analysis of the foam ban issue, I have to give this paper (and the original version that I wrote ten years ago) a C-minus for failing to address a major market intervention at the heart of the matter. Instead of debating the merits or evils of two less-than-ideal options (paper or foam) we should remove the ban on hemp cultivation so that farmers can offer consumers and businesses a broader range of choices in take-out food containers and a host of other products.
    Angela Eckhardt, author of the 1998 Cascade Policy Institute report, “Paper Waste: Why Portland’s Ban on Polystyrene Foam Products Has Been a Costly Failure”

  3. Since recycling began and presently in 2009 the State of Maryland requires all residents to recycle paper, glass, plastic and metal. They even want our toilet paper cardboard. However polystyrene is not recycleable, except commercial (block) polystyrene and there is only one plant in MD. I am very frustrated in this era of environmental awareness as businesses continue to use polystyrene and plastic for carryout, mainly due to cost. In business, its always the bottom line that matters and their greed. All consumable products are either hermetically sealed, vaccuum packed or plastic packed as “fresh convenience food” to seal in “freshness” when the population consumes food at such a rate, food has no time to grow stale or rot. Yet we continue to purchase and throw away excessive amounts and poor choice of packaging of consumeable items, without grief, guilt or complaint as long as we recycle. Until our impact on the environment causes very serious consequences such as availability of clean water, diseases and health issues, we will continue in our madness. Dabating and analyzing about the “cost-effectiveness” of paper v. polystyrene or plastic is only a minor part of the issue. We need to commit to package reduction, get back to basics packaging and get over our obsession with “sterile” supermarket foods that perpetuate this nightmare of packaging production, waste and plastic bag kites in trees, beaches, streams aand landfills.

    1. Actually there are several locations throughout the country that recycle restaurant take out containers (when cleaned) and also foam cups. See www. for locations near you. Or, Dart also has a mail in program where merchants can collect their customers used foam cups and return them for recycling via prepaid UPS label on the box.

  4. The concern for our environment here is nice to see. However, there is a lot more to this than polystyrene not being able to biodegrade. The manufacturing of paper is much more damaging to our environment then polystyrene is by a considerable amount. Both wax coated paper and polystyrene are difficult to recycle, however in my medium size town there are 10 places that you can drop off polystyrene for reuse in packaging. I realize that most people will just end up dumping this in the garbage. Modern landfills are designed not to let things biodegrade (so paper will always be paper in a landfill). This is a good thing, and is done so that the paper does not release methane gas, which is damaging to our ozone. In my city our garbage is incinerated. The polystyrene releases considerable more energy than paper, which we transform into heat and power.
    I love my earth. Let’s be smart and save it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.Required fields are marked *