Banning Foam Food Containers

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By Michael Malone
Delegate, District 33

Long before plogging (picking up litter while jogging) was coined in Sweden, my family and I picked up trash on our hikes, strolls and runs. Often, we focused on picking up cans and bottles for recycling, but this session, the General Assembly made the efforts of ploggers and people like us easier. On July 1, Maryland will become the first state to enact a ban on foam food containers, the first step in eliminating our reliance on single-use plastics.

The bill, which passed both the House of Delegates and Senate handily with bipartisan support, prevents food service businesses and schools from providing or selling foam food containers, plates, cups, bowls, trays or egg cartons beginning July 2020. Similar bans were already in effect or passed in Baltimore City and Annapolis, as well as Anne Arundel, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, so about half of Maryland's population was already covered by a ban. Foam packaging for raw meat, food products packaged outside Maryland, or not used for food is exempt.

Proponents of the bill, like Trash Free Maryland, point out that polystyrene is more harmful to marine life than plastic. Since polystyrene is 95% air, it floats and breaks into smaller pieces rather than decomposing, so aquatic creatures mistake it for food and eat it, usually either killing the creature or introducing the foam into the food chain. The ban is also supported by the three R’s: reducing is unlikely as takeout sales are soaring thanks to third-party delivery services, reusing is difficult to implement, and recycling is difficult and costly given the cleaning and processing involved.

Opponents note that foam packaging is inexpensive, durable and waterproof. Alternatives cost more, usually aren't recyclable and cost more at the landfill because they are heavier. Also, much "compostable" packaging isn't compostable in backyard bins but instead requires high heat industrial composting to break down. There is also the irony that large businesses can package foodstuffs in foam and send them into Maryland, but local small businesses, like your neighborhood snoball stand, can't use foam packaging.

Seattle has been foam-free since 2009, and cities like New York, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., have also banned foam packaging. Both California and Hawaii have tried to pass statewide bans, and California alone has some 65 local laws banning foam. Consumer pressure akin to last year's concern about plastic straws has led some businesses like Dunkin’ Donuts and Trader Joe’s to eliminate foam cups and trays.

Food wrappers, cups, cans, bottles and other detritus often line our roads and highways, where it can wash into local waterways and then into the bay. Case in point: Mr. Trash Wheel, the floating device that collects garbage and flotsam in the Inner Harbor, has scooped more than 1 million bits of polystyrene since its launch in 2014. That's second only to cigarettes. While I would prefer that people police themselves and not litter, that's pie in the sky, and pie that now won't, at least in Maryland, be served on a foam plate.

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