Last month, the trash wheels in Baltimore’s harbor reached a dubious milestone: they had collected more than 1 million containers made from expanded polystyrene foam (“Styrofoam”) since they began operating. The only type of litter they have collected more of is cigarette butts.
This milestone is but one quantitative example of the amount of Styrofoam that is finding its way to Maryland waterways. Single-use plastics have become ubiquitous in our society, but none is more harmful than Styrofoam. It does not biodegrade, cannot be recycled, and represents a large portion of our litter.
Single-use foam products have been shown to account for as much as 42 percent of the waste found in Maryland waterways. Foam products also absorb chemicals at a higher rate than other plastics, breaking down into tiny particles that are difficult to collect. These are attractive to fish, who eat them, thinking they are food; we then eat the fish and ingest the toxic chemicals.
The Maryland General Assembly has taken decisive action to solve this problem: our state will switch to other types of containers. Many local governments have already shown that banning foam food service products protects the environment while maintaining a business-friendly atmosphere. Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Anne Arundel counties, Annapolis, and Baltimore City have already enacted their own prohibitions. With over 52 percent of Marylanders covered by a foam ban, the legislature believed that we have reached a tipping point: it’s time to create one statewide policy and ban foam food containers altogether.
Our current patchwork of laws does not prevent foam litter from crossing city or county lines, and it does not allow small businesses the benefits of reduced prices that will likely result from a full market switch. Like the bill approved this year, each local jurisdiction has made allowances for a waiver for small businesses that have found the transition too burdensome. To date, not a single business has made such a request. Residents, nonprofits, small businesses, and restaurants have all found the transition to be remarkably easy.
There are numerous alternatives to foam already on the market. Prior to its transition to a cardboard alternative, Montgomery County Public Schools spent an average of 3 cents per foam tray – after switching, they pay the same amount. Some businesses have voluntarily switched to greener alternatives at a minimal cost, including several restaurant owners from around the state who testified in support of the ban this year. Eliminating foam means either no difference to the bottom line or a negligible increase to produce a significant impact on the environment.
Over the past three years, we have worked with a broad coalition of forward-thinking business owners and environmental advocates, including Trash-Free Maryland, the Maryland Sierra Club, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, Blue Water Baltimore, Baltimore Beyond Plastics, and others to expand the ban to cover every Maryland jurisdiction.
The Maryland General Assembly was the first legislative body in the nation to ban expanded polystyrene foam. Maine has now followed our lead, and other states are working on statewide bans now. With polls reflecting support from 63 percent of Marylanders, our legislation passed with bipartisan, veto-proof majorities in both the Senate and House.
Reducing the number of foam food service products used in our State will improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay. We hope the governor will sign this legislation and demonstrate Maryland’s status as a national leader on environmental issues.
— Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan and Del. Brooke E. Lierman
The authors, both Democrats, represent District 17 in Gaithersburg and Rockville, and District 46 in Baltimore City, respectively.