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Ban on Foam Food Containers Floated by Maryland Lawmakers

Trash Free Maryland

Styrofoam:  It’s in our coffee cups, fast-food containers, and even those annoying packaging peanuts that are so devilishly hard to sweep up after you open a box.

Unfortunately this foam – a petroleum product known as polystyrene – ends up littered all over roadsides in Baltimore and elsewhere—and is a persistent floating eyesore in the Chesapeake Bay.
Legislation being debated this week in the Maryland General Assembly would ban foam food containers and packaging and instead push companies to use biodegradable alternatives, including paper products.

Senator Cheryl Kagan, a Democrat from Montgomery County, is one of the lead sponsors of Senate Bill 186. “Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and the District of Columbia  – in addition to 80 jurisdictions in 9 states – have already banned polystyrene and Styrofoam,” Kagan said during a recent hearing. “This bill would expand that ban statewide, so as to help avoid the environmental and health impacts of these chemicals.”

Dr. Richard Bruno of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health testified about the possible health risks from Styrofoam, especially when it is heated.

 “Styrofoam contains possible chemical-causing chemicals that can leach into the food and drinks that hold them, making them dangerous to consumers,” Dr. Bruno said. “Littered Styrofoam never fully degrades, yet absorbs other chemicals from the environment, which bio-accumulates up the food chain, affecting the fish, oysters and crabs that may consume them. The result is potential harm to the people who eat Maryland seafood.”

Claire Wayner, a junior at Baltimore Polytech Institute, represented a coalition of city students asking state lawmakers to end the use of foam, especially in school cafeterias trays.

 “Students are upset at the trash that they see in their neighborhoods, and by our obsession with single-use polystyrene,” Wayner told a legislative committee. “Why do we still eat off of these trays if we know it is dangerous?”

Mike Levy of the American Chemistry Council was one of several industry group trade representatives who argued to state lawmakers that such heath fears are baseless.  Levy said there is no proof that Styrofoam containers have ever made anyone sick.

“For five decades, these products have been used by consumers, schools, hospitals, and nursing homes,” Levy said. “There is no way that the Food and Drug Administration is going to allow any food contact product that is going to cause cancer or harm for a consumer.”

Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, made the case that trying to control litter by banning Styrofoam makes no sense.

“Really, litter is not a packaging problem, it’s a people problem,” Dyer said. “The number one reason why litter happens is because someone intentionally dropped that item on the ground or in the waterways.”

That is correct, of course.  In a sense, Styrofoam cups don’t pollute waterways – people do.  But that perspective fails to take into account the fact that it takes centuries or millennia for polystyrene to break down and disappear in the environment. Paper cups and packages, meanwhile, dissolve into water in weeks and cost businesses and consumers about the same amount. 

The Montgomery County public schools, for example, switched from foam to paper products in its cafeterias last year and found the exact same costs. That’s not a bad deal for consumers, or the beauty of our waterways and roadsides.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.