ELLSWORTH — Maine became the first state to ban Styrofoam food and beverage containers last month, but, at least in Ellsworth, many restaurants and coffee shops have already transitioned away from them.
“Really the only Styrofoam we use is our cups and that’s a corporate thing,” said Sonny Whittaker, deli manager at Freshies.
Dunkin’ (formerly Dunkin’ Donuts) phased out Styrofoam cups at all of its locations beginning last spring. McDonald’s stopped using polystyrene (Styrofoam is the trade name) clamshell containers all the way back in 1990 and phased out polystyrene cups in 2013.
An employee at Aroma Joes said the company made the switch away from polystyrene cups last year.
The law prohibits restaurants, coffee shops, food trucks, grocery stores and other “covered establishments” from using polystyrene containers as of Jan. 1, 2021.
Ellsworth businesses that do use Styrofoam are looking for alternatives.
Brian Langley, owner of the Union River Lobster Pot, said in an email that the restaurant does use Styrofoam containers for sending home leftovers, but has made “a conscious decision not to do take-out service because of so much single-use service wear.”
The cost to switch adds up quickly, said Langley, particularly for a take-out spot that might go through upward of 500 containers a day.
At $39.28 for 200 cardboard containers, compared to $24.18 for the same number of Styrofoam ones, that’s roughly an increase of $1,000 per month for a store using 500 per day, Langley said.
That doesn’t include cups, lids and smaller foam containers.
“It’s simple math really,” Langley said. “It’s real money that has to be passed on to customers.”
“I’ve been trying to find a new item,” said William Liang, owner of China Hill. “We haven’t found anything suitable for the way we use them.”
The restaurant has lots of hot food and sauces that need to stay hot and not soak through, said Liang, who has ordered a shipment of plastic containers made with recycled materials as an experiment. They were nearly twice as expensive, said Liang, but “If that is good for the environment I don’t think customers will complain.”
Hospitals, seafood shippers and stores that sell pre-packaged meat are exempt from the ban.
“Maine has proven itself an environmental leader once again, this time in eliminating disposable foam containers that have become a common, costly and deadly form of plastic pollution,” said Sarah Lakeman, sustainable Maine director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM).
Every year 256 million pieces of disposable foam cups, plates, bowls, platters and trays are used in Maine, according to NRCM.
Polystyrene generally is not recycled in Maine because it’s not economically feasible, so most of the containers end up in landfills or on the side of the road. Styrofoam breaks down into smaller pieces but never fully degrades. The small pieces can be ingested by wildlife.
Several municipalities around the state have already banned the containers. The state stopped using them at all facilities and functions in 2013, according to NRCM. Maryland’s legislature passed a similar statewide ban in April but it has not yet been signed into law.