The Miami-Dade County Commissioners recently passed an ordinance that would ban disposable Styrofoam products from county parks and beaches, joining a host of other South Florida communities striving to reduce one of the most common and harmful forms of litter.
Styrofoam, also known as polystyrene, can have numerous health and environmental impacts. The problems occur when Styrofoam, which is non-biodegradable, breaks into smaller pieces and gets scattered throughout public spaces and neighboring bodies of water.
The petroleum-based plastic is made up of a harmful monomer called styrene, which is used extensively in the manufacture of plastics, rubber and resins, according to the Earth Resource Foundation. Styrene has also been classified as a possible human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
More than 20 environmental groups wrote a joint letter to the county commissioners outlining the necessities for the ban, which include the potential for more street flooding, the cost of removing the debris and wildlife fatalities.
"Most marine-based foam debris comes from land-based litter that degraded into small pieces, traveled down the storm drain, and ended up in the ocean," the letter reads. "Storm drains clogged by debris also contribute to flooding and can cause infrastructure damage that require costly maintenance and repairs."
Sea birds, fish and sea turtles can often mistake the floating white particles as food. Sea birds have been found dying of starvation with plastic particles in their stomachs.
Additionally, the ordinance cites Miami-Dade County's tourism-dependent economy and how the pollution can create an "unsightly nuisance."
"[Styrofoam] is a huge problem," said Dave Doebler, founder of Volunteercleanup.org, one of the organizations to sign the letter. "In fact, every cleanup we do, we find a tremendous amount of Styrofoam. It's one of the top items that we find floating in the bay, trapped in the mangroves and along the shoreline."
Doebler said his website has coordinated about 400 cleanups in the last year, amounting to over 27,000 volunteer hours and 50 tons of plastic trash debris removed from the South Florida shorelines.
"Styrofoam is absolutely littered everywhere," Doebler said, adding that it's incredibly difficult to clean up.
There are roughly 10 variations of Styrofoam bans in South Florida, with Miami-Dade County's being the most recent, according to Doebler. The most stringent belongs to the city of Miami Beach, which is in the middle of enforcing a city wide ban scheduled to be fully implemented in September.
The ban in Miami-Dade County will go into effect by July 2017. After that, any first-time offender who violates the ordinance will have to pay a $50 fine. Over the next year, officials plan to educate the public through public service announcements, social media and other public media.
As part of outreach efforts, the City of Miami has hosted cooler swaps where, rather than hand out violations, the city offers beachgoers a reusable cooler in exchange for a Styrofoam one.
While Doebler said it's a little early to say if existing restrictions have produced positive results, one of the benefits has been increased awareness throughout the public that plastic marine debris is a significant problem in South Florida.
There have already been some instances where coffee shops and restaurants have switched from Styrofoam to paper cups and are exploring biodegradable and compostable solutions for other materials, according to Doebler.
Styrofoam bans have been steadily increasing across the county and are already in effect in Minneapolis, Seattle, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. The New York Supreme Court overturned New York City's ban in September 2015.
For those interested in volunteering to help fight ocean pollution, Doebler recommended taking part in International Coastal Cleanup day, scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 17.
More than 18 million pounds of trash were collected with the help of nearly 800,000 volunteers during the 2015 event.