Dear NFL: Please Protect the Ocean from Plastic Pollution

By Jan Dell

We recently wrote to the NFL Commissioner and Team Owners with a specific concern about plastic waste and pollution and a request that the NFL be an active part in ending what has become a pollution epidemic.  Plastic pollution has significant impacts to the ocean in areas such as South Florida where the NFL will host Super Bowl LIV in 2020.  As NFL fans and members of NFL team communities who are actively involved in ocean and environmental issues, we request that the NFL end licensing of team logos on non-recyclable, non-durable expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam coolers that create waste to landfills and pollution to the ocean.

Just as the NFL has improved the technology of helmets to protect the health of players over the last decades, we request that the NFL now license only to reusable, non-polluting coolers to protect the health of the oceans, ecosystems and many species suffering from plastic pollution. The disposable design of EPS foam coolers is as outdated as leather football helmets.

The Miami Super Bowl LIV Host Committee recently announced the launch of the Ocean to Everglades (O2E) campaign aimed “to reduce the environmental impact around Super Bowl events and promote sustainability around the unique confluence of ocean and land-based issues found in South Florida”. Promotion of EPS foam coolers is counterproductive to the O2E initiative because EPS foam is described as the biggest plastic pollution problem by a marine biologist in Key Largo, Florida who volunteers at monthly coastline cleanups.  “We always go to the same spot and no matter what time of the year, Styrofoam coolers and just chunks of Styrofoam are always there,” she said. Marine life experts in Jupiter, Florida say ocean trash is threatening the lives of sea turtles.  In the last year alone, over 35,000 foam pieces were collected on a small 9.5 mile stretch of beach they patrol. Up north in Baltimore Harbor, Maryland, Mr. Trash Wheel collected 1,028,000 Styrofoam containers in five years. This has led the State of Maryland to pass a statewide ban on EPS foam containers.

The NFL has licensed team logos for imprinting on EPS foam coolers for decades. The coolers are sold in grocery and convenience stores across the United States (U.S.) and are designed to be disposed after only a few uses.  The light weight, non-durable nature of EPS foam leads to cooler breakage through wear and tear experienced in normal use. The old-fashioned disposable design creates non-recyclable plastic waste that must be sent to landfills and is now understood to create plastic pollution to the ocean.  Experts estimate that 300,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste from the United States (U.S.) pollute the ocean every year, which is about 65 dump trucks of plastic waste per day. Disposable EPS foam coolers contribute to this plastic pollution that is a blight in our cities and on our landscapes and harms our rivers and oceans.

Plastic waste and pollution are a burden to cities and communities to pay for waste disposal, landfill expansion and pollution cleanup. Over 200 U.S. cities and communities have banned EPS foam containers because of the costs to dispose of the plastic waste and its many harms to the environment. Sales of NFL EPS foam coolers are now illegal in New York City, Nassau County, Maine, Maryland, San Francisco, San Diego and several cities in the Los Angeles area. Use of NFL EPS foam coolers is illegal in Miami-Dade County Parks and Beaches. More U.S. cities and states are considering EPS foam container bans in 2019. Recycling of EPS foam is not a viable, realistic option in the U.S. due to the high cost of collection, cleaning and processing. As a result, only about 1% of EPS foam containers and packaging was recycled in the U.S. in 2017.

Major brand companies, including McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Baskin Robbins and Wendy’s, have stopped distributing EPS foam consumer products to remove their valuable logos from the environmentally harmful EPS foam products.

The NFL and individual teams have made environmental and social commitments to communities to operate in sustainable, eco-friendly ways. However, licensing of the NFL team logos to a non-recyclable, non-durable EPS foam product is not consistent with the NFL and team commitments.  To its credit, the NFL also licenses team logos to several manufacturers of reusable nylon coolers and durable hard plastic ice chests.  Unlike EPS foam coolers, these reusable, durable options are inexpensive and sustainable for hundreds of uses over multiple years. With durable coolers already licensed, elimination of EPS foam coolers would not pose a hardship on the NFL or NFL fans because reusable containers are inexpensive, would provide cost savings to consumers after just a few uses and would remove NFL team logos from sources of plastic pollution. 

On behalf of our organizations, members, and supporters, we ask the NFL to only license and promote reusable, durable coolers.  By promoting reusable coolers, the NFL will: encourage sustainability in fans and communities, enhance the NFL and individual team brands by affixing logos only to non-polluting products and expand brand exposure since durable coolers are legal across the entire country and in every NFL market.

We support the Super Bowl LIV Committee’s desire to “leave a positive and sustainable legacy long after the final whistle of the Game on February 2, 2020”. The NFL can start now by promoting reusable coolers instead of disposable EPS foam coolers that too often become plastic pollution in the ocean. By ending promotion of EPS foam coolers now, there will be less EPS foam plastic pollution to be collected during the planned O2E beach cleanups during Super Bowl LIV in Miami, Florida.

A collaboration of Jan Dell, Independent Engineer, The Last Beach Cleanup; Dianna Cohen, CEO and Co-Founder, Plastic Pollution Coalition; Steve Blackledge, Senior Conservation Director, Environment America; and Alex Truelove, Zero Waste Director, U.S. PIRG.

5 Gyres Institute, Plastic Pollution Coalition, Surfrider Foundation and #breakfreefromplastic join forces to raise awareness about Styrofoam pollution

Environmental activist groups are joining forces to fight the lack of legislation on plastic pollution during Coastal Cleanup Day on Sept. 16 at Venice Beach, CA, USA. The 5 Gyres Institute, Plastic Pollution Coalition, Surfrider Foundation and the #breakfreefromplastic movement will collaborate to raise awareness about the problem of beach pollution from polystyrene and expanded polystyrene foam.

As part of this collaborative initiative, 5 Gyres will offer envelopes to beach clean up participants, so they can send found pieces of polystyrene trash to congressional representatives in Sacramento—where this year legislators voted against SB-705, a statewide polystyrene ban. This movement is part of 5Gyres’ #foamfree Action Campaign to empower volunteers to make their voices heard in the fight against Styrofoam pollution.

Polystyrene is the most common form of plastic found on beaches worldwide. Made from styrene—a known animal carcinogen and probable human carcinogen—it was ranked the 5th worst global industry in terms of toxic waste production by the Environmental Protection Agency. Typically, it is not recyclable.

Expanded polystyrene foam—better known as Styrofoam—fragments and is virtually impossible to clean up, yet Americans are still using 25 billion cups made from this plastic every year. We hope that when the polystyrene ban is re-introduced in the California legislature next year, lawmakers will do the right thing by passing it.

— Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, Executive Director of 5 Gyres

“Expanded polystyrene foam—better known as Styrofoam—fragments and is virtually impossible to clean up, yet Americans are still using 25 billion cups made from this plastic every year,” said Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, Executive Director of 5 Gyres. “We hope that when the polystyrene ban is re-introduced in the California legislature next year, lawmakers will do the right thing by passing it.”

“We know what we need to know about polystyrene and expanded polystyrene foam: In the 21st century these carcinogenic, single-use plastic food-ware products should have no place anywhere near our food, let alone our environment,” said Graham Hamilton, Surfrider Malibu/West LA Chapter Coordinator. “With so many harmless alternatives available, it’s time to rid them from the consumer stream altogether.”

While the 5 Gyres Institute, Plastic Pollution Coalition, Surfrider Foundation and the #breakfreefromplastic movement applaud beach clean up efforts, this collective action is designed to highlight the lack of emphasis that events like Coastal Cleanup Day have on upstream solutions. These include legislative responsibility to pass laws that protect the environment, consumer responsibility to refuse single-use plastics such as polystyrene cups, lids, and straws, and corporate responsibility to design products with end use in mind.

“Volunteers are often given plastic water bottles by organizers when they’re at a beach cleanup,” said Dianna Cohen, CEO and Co-Founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. “There’s clearly a disconnect when it comes to the source of plastic pollution.”

The Venice Beach event was organized in conjunction with a Sept. 16 clean up on Freedom Island in Manila Bay, Philippines, coordinated by #breakfreefromplastic member groups and the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Register here for the Freedom Island Coastal Cleanup.

“We’ve been cleaning up brands on our beaches for 20 years,” said Abi Aguilar of Greenpeace Philippines, a #breakfreefromplastic member organization. “It’s time for corporates to take responsibility for the materials they put into the world. We must innovate delivery systems, eliminate single-use plastics, and insist that governments better regulate corporations that use plastic. This should be the last beach clean up.”

Celebrated annually for decades, Coastal Cleanup Day is the world’s largest simultaneous volunteer action to clean up the ocean: In 2016, more than 500,000 people picked up 18.3 million pounds of trash in just a few hours.

Photo via 5 Gyres. 

Join our global Coalition. 

Photo: A discarded polystyrene cup on an L.A. County beach. (Los Angeles Times)

A new bill aims to clean up the environment by banning polystyrene (Styrofoam) in the state of California. Polystyrene is an environmental pollutant and non-biodegradable substance commonly used as disposable foodservice cups, plates, and containers. Since polystyrene breaks into tiny pieces over time, it is now considered a main component of marine debris on beaches across the world. 

Take Action: Send an email to your Senator here. 

An editorial in the Los Angeles Times published earlier this week gave strong support for the bill. 

“Foam containers get battered as they move through the storm drain system, the smaller bits slipping through filters into the ocean,” writes Mariel Garza. “Unlike a littered plastic bag, which may fill with water and sink to the bottom of the sea, plastic foam is buoyant and breaks down into smaller and smaller bite-sized pieces. Also, plastic foam can absorb other chemicals present in the ocean. This poses a danger to marine life and sea birds that eat the ‘microplastic’ pieces in the water and on the shore, along with whatever pollutants they contain. It also poses a health risk to humans, as plastic has been found in the bodies of fish and shellfish caught for human consumption.”

The bill, called the Ocean Pollution Reduction Act of 2017 (SB 705), would ban stores and restaurants from using polystyrene containers for prepared food starting in 2020, and is based on a polystyrene take-out ban enacted by Santa Monica in 2008.

Make your voice heard by calling and emailing your Senator today!

Sample text:

“My name is _________. I live in _______ and I am a constituent of Senator Lara’s (or find your representative here.) 

I ask the Senator to support SB 705 by Senator Allen to ban foam takeout food and drink containers for the following reasons:

It is toxic to human, wildlife, and environmental health.

It is expensive and nearly impossible to clean up since it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces.

It is rarely recyclable, particularly when food soiled.

It is replaceable with already existing and economically equivalent alternatives that are made right here in California.

Learn how to start a polystyrene ban in your town.