Since switching gears from advocating for legislation regarding disposable plastic bags, Trash Free Maryland has focused on expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. EPS foam is used widely by food service businesses, hospitals, schools, prisons, and sold by retailers. Currently, Washington D.C., Baltimore City, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s County have passed bans on EPS foam.
Foam food packaging is a major component of litter in Maryland’s waterways. Among the Chesapeake Bay’s tidal waters, the EPA has identified three regions of concern: the Baltimore Harbor, the Anacostia River, and the Elizabeth River. Since 2014, 702,017 EPS foam containers have been removed from the Baltimore Harbor alone. Of material pulled from the Anacostia River before it reached the Chesapeake Bay, EPS foam comprised 25-40% of the trash, by volume.
While EPS foam represents only 1% of the waste stream, it makes up 10-40% of the litter collected during cleanups. It’s fragile nature causes it to break into tiny pieces upon entering our environment, making it nearly impossible to successfully remove from our waterways. It can rarely be recycled and municipal curbside collection of EPS foam in Maryland is almost nonexistent. Once EPS foam becomes part of the waste stream, it commonly gets washed or blown into our storm drains and rivers, where it absorbs 10 times more pesticides, fertilizers, and chemicals than other kinds of plastic, increasing exposure to toxins for marine life.
Legislation to restrict the sale and use of EPS foam food packaging in Anne Arundel County and the City of Annapolis was jointly introduced by County Councilman Trumbauer and Alderman Savidge on May 7, 2018.
The county and city bills would prohibit food service businesses and institutions from serving food in EPS foam packaging (cups, plates, clamshells), as well as prohibiting the retail sale of these products in the County and City. Additionally, there are provisions allowing businesses to use up existing stock by establishing a grace period in enforcement. Similar to jurisdictions with existing bans, the bill also includes a one-year waiver if no affordable alternative packaging is available, though in jurisdictions with a ban in place, no businesses have applied for such a waiver. The bill would require the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to conduct outreach to businesses to support a transition. Enforcement would occur through existing inspections by the Anne Arundel County Health Department.
Following the introduction of this legislation, a coalition of environmental groups, residents, businesses, scientists, and clean water advocates campaigned for their passage. As a coalition, we provided testimony at multiple hearings, surveyed businesses in the area on their current packaging, organized students, talked with county school officials, and met with Councilmembers and Aldermen to answer additional questions on the issue.
The bill in Annapolis has support from the Mayor and most of the city council, but the Anne Arundel County Council was a bit more apprehensive. Ultimately, the council voted to pass the bill 4-3 on June 18th following the addition of a few amendments. Shortly thereafter, County Executive Schuh vetoed the bill. In order to override the veto, the Council needed five votes and neither the coalition or the bill sponsors were able to secure a fifth vote. With robust support from the community, it was disappointing to see progress halted. Rather than phasing out a material we know is a toxic pollutant in our waterways, and thus way of life, a new budget approving funding for a foam densifier was passed. Recycling post consumer foam is an expensive endeavor that is even less viable when considering food-contaminated foam. It is not an economical, ecological, or realistic solution to the waste stream, and even the best case scenario ignores the dangerous implications of foam litter in marine environments. As the state’s leading organization on trash policy, we will continue to push for a statewide ban, and revisit the prospects in Anne Arundel County following the election this November.
The City of Annapolis bill is still pending due to the veto, as the County Health Department handles enforcement within the city limits.The Environmental Matters Committee is set to reconvene on this issue September 19th at 3pm in City Hall and we will follow back up with updates accordingly.