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Baltimore Students Spearhead Campaign Against Styrofoam Litter

Trash Free Maryland

Our world is awash in litter, with a monstrous gyre of floating plastic swelling in the Pacific Ocean, bottles and cans cluttering our roadsides, and blighting even the most remote and beautiful Chesapeake Bay islands and wetlands.

One response to this: more than 100 cities and counties across the U.S. have banned Styrofoam cups and food containers. These included the District of Columbia last year, along with suburban Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

The Styrofoam industry and take-out food retailers, however, have been fighting back – launching a PR campaign and “Go Foam!” website.  The anti anti-foam forces prevailed in the Maryland General Assembly last winter, halting a bill that would have banned Styrofoam statewide.

In Baltimore, the crusade against what is more formally known as expanded polystyrene – a petroleum product-- is being led by a pair of students, Claire Wayner and Mercedes Thompson, both seniors at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

“A lot of the students that we’ve talked to especially see Styrofoam as this particularly malicious form of trash,” Wayner said. “Because whenever we do litter cleanups, you try to pick it up, and it just breaks apart, and you can’t get it out, physically.  So it’s ruining our ecosystem and it’s an eyesore for the Inner Harbor. So we need to get rid of it.”

Through meetings, rallies, artistic displays, a “Baltimore Beyond Plastic” website, and online petition, the students helped to convince Baltimore City Councilman John Bullock to introduce a bill to ban Styrofoam in the city.

“We can look around our city and see plenty of litter, and it happens to be Styrofoam,” said Bullock. “We know that it’s not biodegradable, so it’s either going into a landfill or it’s going into an incinerator, releasing harmful chemicals. It’s something that we really should have gotten rid of years ago, and I so I think the time is now.”

Another statewide ban bill will likely be introduced during the General Assembly session that starts on January 10th.  The opponents of these bills argue that they will cost businesses and consumers a few cents more per cup or container to buy recyclable paper products.  And they contend that foam is harmless.

“When you hear people say that we’re at risk for having a toxic chemical or that people are going to get sick – no one has ever gotten sick, whether you’re in a nursing home or a McDonald’s or anything else,” said Mike Levy, a director of the American Chemistry Council, a plastic manufacturers trade association. “And the reason being that the levels of styrene that actually come out are so small to begin with, it’s just not a problem at all.”

Claire Jordan, an advocate for Trash Free Maryland, admits that the evidence is unclear on the potential health impact of Styrofoam, with experts offering opinions on both sides. But she says there is no debate that when the District of Columbia imposed its ban in 2016 the volume of foam litter measured in and collected from a tributary to the Anacostia River dropped dramatically.

In exchange for this decline in litter, DC take-out restaurants did not report any drop in sales, Jordan said.

“What we found from the surveying of businesses is that while, yes, alternatives may be more expensive, they are not so expensive that they negatively impacted the businesses or that they cannot afford the recyclable or compostable alternatives,” said Jordan.

Hearings on the Baltimore and Maryland foam ban bills are expected this winter.


Photo from Trash Free Maryland

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.