Baltimore considers a polystyrene ban

The Baltimore City Council is currently debating a measure that would ban polystyrene food containers in food service establishments. The ban would be a first among large East Coast cities, although similar proposals are being debated in New York and Boston. Many large West Coast cities, including Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, have already banned polystyrene. This is an exciting opportunity for Baltimore to lead the East Coast on an important environmental issue.

What is polystyrene? Many people know polystyrene foam by the trademarked name Styrofoam, but Styrofoam is just one brand name for one type of polystyrene. There are many other brands and types, including both foams and regular plastics. For example, polystyrene is commonly used in disposable plastic forks and spoons, plastic plates and cups, straws, and takeout containers. Anything with the recycling number 6 is polystyrene; it’s one of the most commonly used materials for disposable foodware.

What’s the problem? Polystyrene is also one of the most common components of litter pollution. A 2008 study found that fully 25% of trash in the Jones Falls in Baltimore was polystyrene foam containers. In large, open waterways, the composition is often higher: head down to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and you’re guaranteed to see bits and pieces of foam cups, plastic forks, and takeout containers bobbing along the waterfront.

This litter pollution makes Baltimore look dirty, invites crime, and harms wildlife. Polystyrene never biodegrades, but breaks down into small pieces which are consumed by marine life. Birds, turtles, and marine mammals can die from ingesting large amounts of this plastic. There are also emerging concerns that eating food out of polystyrene may be harmful to human health.

Unfortunately, polystyrene is very difficult and not economical to recycle. That’s why many cities are using bans to eliminate polystyrene.

Littered polystyrene containers, like this one in the Inner Harbor, are dangerous to wildlife. 
(Photo: Baltimore Harborkeeper)

Will it cost more? You’ll often hear opponents of the ban talk about how it’s going to raise costs for consumers. In reality, the increased cost will only add a few cents to the price of a meal. What opponents don’t mention is the enormous cost that we are already paying to pick up polystyrene trash. Baltimore City alone spends $10 million every year on litter cleanup (and even so, there’s still tons of trash around the city!) The Baltimore Waterfront Partnership, an alliance of businesses in the Inner Harbor, spends an additional $300,000 in private funds just to clean litter in the harbor. The polystyrene industry is getting a pretty good deal by making us clean up their trash, and they would like us to continue footing the bill.

What’s more, Baltimore Harbor was recently declared to be “impaired” by trash under the Clean Water Act. That means Baltimore is legally required to reduce the amount of trash in the water. If we don’t, we will have to pay hefty fines to the federal government. So, we’re all paying one way or another — either a few cents upfront for alternative containers, or after the fact, to clean up cheap polystyrene containers in our streets and streams. Why not cut the problem off at the source? As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Will it work? Nearly 50 cities around the US have successfully banned polystyrene food containers, with positive results. Polystyrene bans are spurring demand, innovation, and competition in other materials, which will ultimately reduce the cost of alternatives. Eventually, we anticipate that most food service containers will be recyclable or compostable, further reducing the cost for Baltimore to haul them away as garbage.

Some of you may remember when McDonalds made the big jump from polystyrene foam hamburger boxes to the paper wrappers they have today. When the change was first proposed, there was a tremendous uproar. The public couldn’t imagine buying hamburgers wrapped in paper. But of course, it wasn’t a big deal — now we all expect to get sandwiches wrapped in paper, and hamburger-wrapper litter has declined dramatically. Let’s hope that Baltimore council members have the vision and courage to do the same for the rest of our polystyrene food containers!

Call your councilmember, and Council President Jack Young, today. Find their phone numbers here.

-by Bradley Kennedy

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