BALTIMORE (Sept. 20, 2017)—Over the past three years, two counties in Maryland have imposed bans on polystyrene foam products in their restaurants and schools. Now it's Baltimore City's turn to again consider following suit in getting rid of a product that makes up 85 percent of its litter.
Baltimore City Councilman John Bullock introduced a bill last week that would prohibit polystyrene foam containers, also known under the trademark name Styrofoam, for carryout food and drinks in the city.
"We saw Montgomery County and Prince George's County move forward with bills banning polystyrene items," Bullock said in an interview with Capital News Service. "This is an environmental issue we need to be dealing with."
There is no date set for a hearing on Bullock's proposed bill yet, but he said he is hopeful it will be taken up by the city council in the coming weeks.
A ban would significantly decrease urban litter and improve the environmental health of waterways, Bullock said. His bill would impose a $1,000 fine against businesses that use polystyrene products and would take effect 90 days after the legislation is signed.
"Foam is easily blown by wind or washed by rain into our storm drains and water bodies," D.C. Department of Energy and Environment Director Tommy Wells said in a 2015 statement after the city passed its ban on polystyrene products. "Over time, foam litter breaks into small pieces that are difficult to remove from the environment and are harmful when eaten by wildlife."
Bans on polystyrene products have been spreading throughout the country, from Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco to New York City. More than 80 cities across the country have placed at least a partial ban on polystyrene foam.
In 2013, then-Baltimore City Councilman James B. Kraft proposed a polystyrene ban on restaurants and businesses that sell food to the city council, but it failed.
Julie Lawson, executive director of Trash Free Maryland, thinks the national movement against polystyrene can be credited to better public awareness of the chemical's impact on the environment.
"People are beginning to understand the cost of plastic pollution and they're starting to clean it up," Lawson said. "People understand the cost, not only financially, but also for a better standard of living and we need to move toward using better resources."
In 2014, before polystyrene items were banned, Montgomery County switched from plastic lunch trays to paper.
It took until 2015 for the county to pass legislation, banning the use or sale of polystyrene products by food service businesses.
Prince George's County and the District of Columbia banned polystyrene products as of Jan. 1, 2016.
The restaurant industry has opposed such bans.
Businesses and restaurants have had to switch to alternative disposable food products that cost more than polystyrene products, according to Melvin Thompson, senior vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
Thompson said that the alternatives cost "two to three times more" than the products currently being used by restaurants in Maryland.
"We oppose this legislation because it would significantly increase the cost of disposable food service products without any quantifiable environmental or health benefit," Thompson said in a statement regarding the proposed Baltimore ban.
Thompson added that there might not even be a suitable alternative for both hot and cold foods because "the insulating properties of polystyrene are unmatched."
Restaurants in Montgomery and Prince George's County have found alternatives such as double-lined paper cups for drinks since the bans have been instituted.
"The arguments for enacting polystyrene foam bans are often falsely predicated on the assumption that such bans will reduce litter," Thompson said. "However, forcing businesses to use alternative products does not reduce litter—it simply changes its composition."
Supporters of Bullock's bill cite the health dangers of using polystyrene products.
"Foam is a huge health concern because that is what almost everything is served on in the city," said Mercedes Jones, spokeswoman for Baltimore Beyond Plastic, which advocates public health and environmental advocacy in Baltimore, "Studies have shown that carcinogens from foam can get into hot food when we get it."
A proposed statewide ban in Maryland, similar to the one proposed by Bullock, was introduced in both the Maryland House of Representatives and Senate earlier this year. The legislature adjourned without taking action.
But Bullock is encouraged that his Baltimore polystyrene ban bill will prevail this time.
"I'm a little bit hopeful," Bullock said. "We tried it at the state level and now we're back at the local level again. We have a new city council that is a little bit more receptive to the environmental issues we should be dealing with."