EPS Foam Regulations – Will You Be Compliant in 2022?

After the legislative hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, states and congress have been busy putting new environmental legislation into place, under mounting political and public pressure. One material that has been particularly under the microscope is EPS foam.


First, because of the quantities. We throw away an estimated 25 billion Expanded Polystyrene (EPS foam) cups every year.

Second, because of the broad ranging environmental and human health impacts of the material.

And third, because it can easily be substituted out for alternative materials.

Why EPS foam is so bad for the environment

The EPA considers “styrene” in Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) to have serious impacts upon wildlife and the aquatic environment. Due to its lightweight nature, EPS foam is a common component of street litter. It breaks down readily in sunlight into a powdery microplastic. This means that EPS foam that gets blown out of trashcans and landfills – or was never correctly disposed of – fast becomes an environmentally damaging microplastic.

While EPS is technically “recyclable” there is, to date, no meaningful recycling of EPS foam due to high food contamination rates and an undeveloped market to clean, handle and process the material. This results in it clogging up landfills, where it decomposes anaerobically, releasing harmful toxins into the environment.

Why EPS foam is so dangerous for human health

  1. As well as being damaging to the environment, the EPA and International Agency for Research on Cancer also consider styrene to be a “possible human carcinogen” that can have serious impacts upon human health and, due to its further-reaching, impacts the economy.
  2. Beyond its risk as a carcinogen, styrene has also been linked in studies to vision and hearing loss, impaired memory and concentration, and nervous system effects.
  3. Styrene can pass from polystyrene containers into food and beverages when heated or in contact with fatty or acidic foods, to the extent that styrene residues have been found in 100% of all samples of human fat tissue.
  4. High rates of neurotoxicological effects have been reported in workers in polystyrene products manufacturing facilities, including slowed reaction time, effects on balance and spatial orientation, and decreased color discrimination. Some studies also show significant decrease in sperm count and increased sperm abnormality.

What is EPS Foam Commonly Used For?

EPS foam is commonly used for foam cups and food service products; Including food containers, drinking cups and food trays. Foam is a staple product for many businesses, with restaurants using foam containers to package takeout food and coffee shops using foam cups to keep carry out coffees and teas hot (or cold beverages cold).

Foam packaging peanuts: Packaging peanuts, used to protect electronics, furniture, food and other breakable or perishable items from damage during transportation, are commonly made from foam.

Foam Coolers: EPS is used to create coolers to keep items insulated. For example, medical coolers made from EPS are used to keep vaccines and medicines at critical temperatures so that they can be shipped to hospitals and doctor’s offices.  Foam coolers can also be used to keep food and drinks cold when being transported to restaurants and local markets.

What can EPS Foam be Substituted For?

There are a growing number of eco-friendly alternatives that serve the same purpose as EPS foam products. These alternatives for foam food and beverage packaging include biodegradable materials like corn starch or paper.

These materials, are sourced from renewable products, are less polluting to manufacture, and are less environmentally contaminating because they can be easily composted or recycled after they have been used.

Here is a list of eco-friendly alternatives to EPS foam:

  • Cornstarch packing peanuts
  • Compostable cardboards cups and foodservice containers
  • Biodegradable air-filled pouches
  • Paper cups with cardboard sleeves
  • Biodegradable containers with cornstarch-based plastic liners
  • Recycled paper fillers,
  • Corrugated bubble wrap

Dunkin Donuts has developed an eco-friendly alternative to their foam hot beverage cups, which are now being used in cities like New York, that have implemented a foam ban.

Amazon.com has also moved away from using EPS foam packaging peanuts, instead either using recycled paper fillers, or inflatable packing filler to protect their products during shipment.

New Legislation Related to EPS Foam in 2021 / 2022

State legislation:

  • Colorado in its HB 1162 plastics legislation will ban EPS takeout containers at most restaurants, as well as single-use plastic bags.
  • Virginia in its SB 1165 plastics legislation will ban EPS foam foodservice containers.
  • Washington in its SB 5022 plastics legislation will ban some types of EPS containers and make single-use foodservice ware available only on request

Federal legislation:

The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act seeks to ban EPS foodservice containers entirely, as well as discouraging single-use plastic utensils and straws. This bill was reintroduced on March 25, 2021 and has since been referred to the Senate Committee on Finance for approval.

Existing EPS bans:

New York City and over 70 other cities banned the manufacture, processing, and selling of EPS foam and Polystyrene loose fill packaging from July 1, 2015, citing the material as causing environmental harm.

Other cities with bans include:

  • Washington, DC
  • Minneapolis
  • San Francisco
  • Oakland
  • Portland
  • Albany
  • Seattle

Recycling Opportunities for EPS Foam

Recycling helps to reduce the amount of foam needed to be produced and diverts EPS from landfills. Although foam is recyclable, many states don’t currently include it in their recycling programs. Some foam materials can’t be recycled due to a lack of sufficient processing technology, and some can’t be recycled because it’s not economically feasible to do so due to its low value. Then there’s the issue of food contamination. This creates a problem, as many businesses and households therefore have to dispose of foam waste within the general waste stream that is sent to landfills.

Reuse Opportunities for EPS Foam

Instead of buying new foam packing peanuts, companies can save old foam, break the bigger pieces up into smaller pieces and reuse them as “packing peanuts”. If you use large amounts of EPS foam on a regular basis, consider saving it and selling it to another company that has a demand for the foam product. This will help bring an extra profit stream to the business, while reducing the impact on the environment.

NWA Keeps Your Business Compliant with EPS Foam Legislation

Every state has different regulatory environments that pose challenges for businesses trying to understand what rules must be abided by and what goals have to be reached. National Waste Associates (NWA) is there to ensure that no matter how many states your business operates in, you’ll be fully compliant in each and every one – for EPS foam, and all elements of your waste and recycling operations. Our expertise in sustainability and compliance with recycling legislation enables us to provide customized waste and recycling solutions for all your locations, saving you time, money, and headaches.

Want to take away the stress of compliance?
Contact us at 1-888-692-5005 ext. 6,
or email us at sales@nationalwaste.com

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