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Delaware Senate Democrats

Senate passes bill to reduce polystyrene, single-use plastics at Delaware food establishments

April 6, 2023
Styrofoam container on the beach

DOVER – The Delaware State Senate on Thursday passed legislation to limit the use of polystyrene containers and many single-use plastics at food establishments throughout the state.

Sponsored by Sen. Trey Paradee, Senate Bill 51 would bar restaurants from serving ready-to-eat food in containers made of polystyrene, a non-biodegradable and potentially carcinogenic petroleum product best known by the brand name Styrofoam, starting on July 1, 2025.

The bill would further prohibit food establishments in Delaware from providing single-use plastic straws unless requested by a consumer, while also banning single-use plastic coffee stirrers, cocktail picks and sandwich picks.

“I want to thank my Senate colleagues for voting today to continue our work to reduce the harmful products in the marketplace and our environment,” said Sen. Paradee, D-Dover. “While the low cost of the products have made them pervasive in our daily lives, we now know they are harmful to wildlife and are potentially dangerous to human health. As a coastal state with a vibrant tourism industry that is critical to our economy and our quality of life, reducing plastic waste is particularly important for Delaware.” 

If passed by the Delaware House and signed by Governor John Carney, Senate Bill 57 would mark another important step forward in Delaware’s recent efforts to prevent single-use plastics from ending up in streams, rivers, forests, beaches, and landfills. The Delaware General Assembly passed legislation in both 2019 and 2021 that significantly curtailed the distribution of single-use plastic bags by Delaware grocery stores and other retailers. 

“I am pleased that Senator Paradee led the successful effort for Senate passage, and I look forward to championing this bill through the House,” said Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, the House prime sponsor of Senate Bill 51.

Polystyrene presents significant risks to the health of consumers and the environment during its creation, use and disposal.  

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has long listed the polystyrene manufacturing process among the largest producers of hazardous waste and a major source of ground-level ozone, a common contributor to poor air quality and a higher incidence of asthma. 

According to the World Health Organization, styrene – the building block from which polystyrene is made – is a probable carcinogen. In 2018, the findings of an impartial working group led by the WHO and the International Agency for Research on Cancer found that the previous label of “possibly carcinogenic” was insufficient and upgraded their warning following a review of human epidemiological studies and animal experiments. When used to serve hot foods and liquids like coffee and soup, styrene and benzene are often released and ingested. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and National Toxicology Program (NTP) listed styrene as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” in 2011

Polystyrene also is one of the most littered materials in Delaware – one that persists in the environment for thousands of years. Once used in food service, polystyrene can no longer be recycled resulting in tremendous amounts of waste. Over time, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, which are commonly ingested by wildlife and passed into the food chain or water supply. 

Between 2008 and 2019, thousands of pieces of polystyrene litter were found along Delaware beaches during annual coastal cleanup events including 2,528 takeout containers, 2,626 cups and plates, and 15,0644 other pieces of polystyrene. A 2018 study of visible litter along Delaware highways found an average of 498 pieces of polystyrene litter per mile. 

At least six states and the District of Columbia have all banned polystyrene from use in food service due to its serious health and environmental risks. 

In addition to polystyrene, SB 51 also seeks to further reduce single-use plastics in Delaware. 

Plastic straws would remain available by customer request – a key compromise with disability advocates who have pointed to the importance of plastic straws for some customers. Single-service plastic coffee stirrers and plastic picks used for sandwiches and cocktails would be banned outright under the legislation.

SB 51 now heads to the House for consideration.