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State Senate votes to move forward with polystyrene container, plastic straw restrictions

Delaware's Senate voted this week to largely ban the use of polystyrene food containers and several other single-use plastics, with some notable exceptions.

Delaware already bans plastic carryout bags, and bill sponsor Sen. Trey Paradee says his bill to largely prohibit food vendors from distributing polystyrene containers and plastic straws is the next logical step to move away from single-use plastics.

Republican opponents like Senate Minority Leader Brian Pettyjohn argue it would be more appropriate to push the Delaware Solid Waste Authority to accept polystyrene for recycling and encourage consumers to be more responsible when disposing of single-use plastics.

“Instead of saying, ‘no, you can’t use these in Delaware,’ we should be saying, ‘yes, you can use them in Delaware, but recycle them,'" he urged colleagues. "Let’s encourage that recycling – let’s do everything we can to encourage them not to toss them out the window.”

Dart Containers, the world’s largest producer of polystyrene containers, operates three polystyrene recycling drop-off locations in Delaware, but Democratic lawmakers note voluntary recycling drop-offs capture only a small fraction of single-use plastics disposed of in the state.

A Dart Containers representative estimated that the company's polystyrene recovery centers recycle upwards of twenty percent of the polystyrene it produces.

Backers also argue relying on consumers alone will likely not remedy widespread plastics pollution and the detrimental health impacts of plastic food containers. "That's part of the problem — people don't always make good decisions," said Sen. Jack Walsh.

The bill received broad support among Senate Democrats with one exception: state Sen. Nicole Poore, whose district includes a Dart Containers manufacturing facility. Poore points out the state provided a more than $3 million incentive for the company to relocate to the Delaware Logistics Center campus in 2020; she argues limiting the company’s in-state sales could stifle economic development and potentially cost jobs.

But state Senator Stephanie Hansen says given ecological risks – and potential health risks – of materials like polystyrene, policymakers are obligated to commit to moving away from single-use plastics.

“We have to begin to dial it back and start making some difficult decisions that will spur innovation," Hansen said, "because public policy needs to go in this direction.”

The bill prohibits food vendors from providing single-use plastic straws unless requested by a consumer. But in the absence of workable alternatives for many people with disabilities or seniors, it exempts hospitals and long-term care facilities from the plastic straw restrictions. It also exempts nonprofits, religious institutions, out-patient healthcare providers and fire departments from the polystyrene restrictions.

Both Poore and Senate Republicans questioned the logic of allowing the continued use of polystyrene to serve food to medical patients and other vulnerable consumers given the health risks posed by the material's chemical components — including benzene, which the EPA classifies as a carcinogen. Paradee acknowledged the apparent cognitive dissonance, adding that once better alternatives are available, the state should move to expand restrictions on polystyrene and other plastics.

The bill passed in the Senate on a near-party-line vote, with Poore abstaining.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.