When Michael DeFilippi, a Miami Beach sustainability committee member, proposed that his city ban the use of polystyrene products to protect the city's waterways, some people said it couldn't be done.
"The American Chemistry Council, the ones who go round trying to fight the plastic bag bans, sent us a letter and said, 'You can't do this. You're pre-empted,'" he says.
The council pointed out that Florida has a law on the books that prevents municipalities from banning plastic bags and related products. The statute, in place since 2008, states that "no local government, local government agency or state government agency may enact any rule, regulation or ordinance regarding use, disposition, sale, prohibition, restriction or tax of such auxiliary containers, wrappings or disposable plastic bags."
DeFilippi says he took the state law to Miami Beach City Commissioner Michael Grieco to review. "I said, 'Can we look into this, because I think there's a loophole, and I don't think there is a pre-emption on this,'" DeFilippi says. "And we looked into it, and we weren't pre-empted, so we moved forward with banning it."
In 2014, the city started out with a ban on foam products within city agencies and at beachside cafés and restaurants, where the lightweight cups and takeout containers have the most potential to end up in nearby waterways. This year, Miami Beach is going for a full ban. On July 8, the city commission had a first read on a bill that would ban foam takeout containers and coolers throughout the city, and DeFilippi says the measure is expected to pass easily on its second read later in July.
The story has gained a lot of attention, and it has encouraged other cities to follow suit. It's even given Orlando residents hope that it could happen here, too.
Orange County Soil and Water Conservation Supervisor 4 Eric Rollings is building a grass-roots coalition that supports a ban on polystyrene in Orlando city limits. He's already met with environmental groups, and he's talked to the city, and he says that so far, everyone has been supportive. He launched a website this week – nofoamzone.org – where businesses and community members can learn more and sign up to pledge to go foam-free.
When he goes out to do lake cleanups around Orlando, Rollings says, "The first thing you see, floating on the surface of the water, is 15 or 20 foam containers." Turtles and birds mistake it for a food source and eat it, which can be deadly, and because it doesn't break down, it stops up drainage pipes, forming a polystyrene dam that creates flooding in other areas. And it's not just because people are tossing their to-go cups in the gutter.
"People try to put it in the right place," he says. "They put it in a trash can, but a gentle breeze is all it takes. It blows into the water, and then it's there for eternity."
Ever since Miami decided to ditch foam, five other South Florida municipalities have followed suit, including Key Biscayne, Bal Harbour, Bay Harbor Islands, North Bay Village and Surfside, and DeFilippi says he is also meeting with the city of Fort Lauderdale to discuss it.
"People don't pay attention to the impact of their single-use lifestyle," he says. "But foam products are horrible. They are so lightweight, they are easily carried into the water and get into the storm-drain system, and it's so easy for them to make it into the waterways. And because they are so weak, they break up into a million little pieces, and that creates this toxic soup that's really hard to get out of the water."
The industry response is, not surprisingly, dismissive of concerns. The American Chemical Council, for instance, combats complaints that polystyrene is a problem by pointing out how convenient it is:
"Polystyrene foam and other plastic foodservice products are affordable, convenient, sanitary and sturdy," American Chemistry Council vice president of plastics Steve Russell says in a statement posted to the group's website. "They stand up to greasy chili, keep our hot drinks hot without scalding our hands and keep our food fresher and ready to eat. As more of us are eating and drinking far from home – while driving to work, on the street corner – they help make possible the way we eat and live today."
One of the organization's tactics to fight foam bans, DeFilippi says, is to offer to help with recycling efforts. "They come in saying, 'We can set up a recycling facility for free in your city,'" he says, "but the thing is, polystyrene can't be easily recycled and it isn't included in single-stream recycling many cities use. So what they are actually providing is a bin at City Hall, where people can go to drop off their foam products when they are done using them."
The council also says that "foam foodservice products" make up less than 1 percent of the nation's solid waste and that they're less expensive than the alternatives.
And expense is a valid concern for small businesses. But as Rollings points out, if more people switched to alternatives, prices would eventually drop.
"As with anything else, just because it's the cheapest option doesn't mean it's the best option," he says. "And prices for other products would begin to plummet if foam were eliminated and everybody went to the alternatives."