City Council Committee Advances Styrofoam Ban, But Delays Implementation

A Baltimore City Council committee unanimously voted to advance a proposed ban on Styrofoam food containers, but drastically lengthened the timeline for implementation from 90 days to 18 months, as activists anxiously await the full council’s decision

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Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: On Tuesday, a Baltimore City Council committee unanimously voted to advance a proposed ban on Styrofoam food containers. But the timeline for implementation was drastically changed. It was amended from 90 days to 18 months.

ERIC COSTELLO: This was part of a great deal of work and compromise, and frankly leadership on Council President Young, and Councilman Bullock’s part.

DHARNA NOOR: Student activist with the group Baltimore Beyond Plastic said that they support this amendment.

MERCEDES THOMPSON: Instead of an impediment, we see this bill as an opportunity to create an equitable transition away from foam products. Over the past weeks, our team has done extensive surveying of Baltimore’s small food businesses. Based on our conversations with business owners, we believe that a longer timeline is necessary to allow all of Baltimore’s businesses to find alternative packaging that meets their needs.

DHARNA NOOR: And in an email, environmental advocacy group, Blue Water Baltimore, told The Real News, “While a shorter implementation time would be preferable, we’re still supportive of this bill with a longer implementation time.” Next week, the council committee will also introduce two more amendments. The first will eliminate the possibility of jail time for infringement. The second will make allowances for grocery stores to use Styrofoam trays and containers, and except pre-packaged food distributors from the ban.

ERIC COSTELLO: But, we have a meat and seafood distributor located on the east side of Baltimore City that this bill would impact, and I think that is an unintended consequence of this bill.

DHARNA NOOR: Students from Mount Royal Elementary and Federal Hill Prep were present. Committee Chair, Eric Costello, explained to them that grocery store styrofoam should be exempt because it doesn’t add to litter.

ERIC COSTELLO: Well, the chances are, that’s probably not going to end up in the Harbor.

DHARNA NOOR: Baltimore Beyond Plastics say they recognized this concession as practical.

MERCEDES THOMPSON: It would be difficult to enforce a ban on food that is often prepackaged outside of Baltimore before being sold within the city. Although this packaging still comprises a portion of Baltimore’s foam litter, it is critical that we promote an enforceable and feasible bill that will not overburden Baltimore’s businesses.

DHARNA NOOR: The full city council will vote on the ban next Tuesday. At the state level, Baltimore delegate, Brooke Lierman and Montgomery County delegate, Cheryl Kagan, have introduced a bill to phase out Styrofoam across Maryland. Styrofoam has already been phased out in Prince George’s County and Montgomery County, as well as in Washington, D.C.

MERCEDES THOMPSON: … ban, were to be passed in Baltimore, more than 50% of Maryland residents will live in jurisdictions where a ban is in effect, including other areas such as Montgomery County, and Prince George’s County. This statistic would have enormous implications for the state ban’s prospects, in which show our state legislators that shifting away from foam is possible.

DHARNA NOOR: Blue Water Baltimore said, “The amendments that were discussed would make the Baltimore bill consistent with Montgomery County and other jurisdictions in Maryland.” If the state level-bill passed, it would likely supersede the city bill. Here’s our in depth report on the bill from last week.

Student: I want to ban styrofoam for the environment and for us.

DHARNA NOOR: As Baltimore’s under-heated and under-funded public schools are capturing headlines, a group of city students are leading a fight for a new law to curb pollution: a ban on styrofoam food containers.

N. KOPHENGNAVONG: We’re going to work so hard together to get polystyrene out of Baltimore.

DHARNA NOOR: Just ahead of a city council hearing to consider the bill, student group, Baltimore Beyond Plastic, held a rally to demand action.

JENN AISOSA: We’ve worked on the issue of phasing out expanded polystyrene for a couple of years, and we’ve been working with the students who have really been rallying behind this cause.

JAILEN REDFERN: We are trying to ban Styrofoam because it will cause chemicals in your food, and it’s also like … if you put it inside the river or anything, it could pollute it, it could kill fishes, or any important living creatures.

DHARNA NOOR: This all comes just after Baltimore City Public Schools made the switch from Styrofoam to compostable lunch trays. At the hearing, City Council President Jack Young said he, too, was supporting the bill.

JACK YOUNG: It was some kids that really, really got to me in a very good way.

DHARNA NOOR: And many kids testified at the hearing.

STUDENT 1: Styrofoam products can be replaced, but our environment and our world can’t.

STUDENT 2: Students across the city have consistently shown that we want … no, demand, to see this bill passed.

DHARNA NOOR: The bill’s chief sponsor, Councilman John Bullock, said he is optimistic that the bill will pass.

JOHN BULLOCK: There were seven co-sponsors for it. I’ve talked to some of the members of the committee, the Council President as well. So, I do believe that we’re going to get this passed.

DHARNA NOOR: Bullock and others say styrofoam has negative health and environmental impacts.

JOHN BULLOCK: We look at the fact that it’s not biodegradable, so it just sits in landfills forever.

DHARNA NOOR: But, at the hearing, some package industry and retail representatives questioned the bill’s efficacy.

C. LOCKLAIR TOLLE: We agree with protecting Marylanders from potentially harmful products, but there simply are not facts to support the proponents’ arguments that polystyrene is harmful.

SPEAKER: Bans on products, including foam, don’t solve the litter problem.

DHARNA NOOR: Some business owners opposed the bill, and expressed concerns about the costs it would pose.

PHIL QUICK: Just for me to use a paper cup, or a plastic cup, will cost about $5,000 more a year. We can’t absorb that cost.

DHARNA NOOR: But, other business owners and food representatives showed their support.

SPEAKER: We have 115 signatures of businesses who support this ban.

JACK YOUNG: We have like 77 restaurants who are in the city of Baltimore, who have sent support letters.

SPEAKER: We are speaking in support of this bill, phasing out the expanded use of polystyrene.

DHARNA NOOR: And though Baltimore does have a program to recycle Styrofoam take-out containers …

PAUL POE: Foam is recyclable. We’ve done it in Baltimore City at the Sisson Street Plant with DPW for years.

DHARNA NOOR: …it’s not a part of the regular recycling stream.

MERCEDES THOMPSON: It’s downgraded, and actually causes Dart to lose money, by recycling them because they have to package them up, and ship them up to Pennsylvania, I believe, and shred them down and they become like picture frames. So, you can’t really use them for food anymore, and after that, you just have to throw them away.

DHARNA NOOR: Instead, the foam often ends up in incinerators.

SPEAKER: You talked about incineration. Nothing burns better or faster or hotter than polystyrene.

MERCEDES THOMPSON: Over 57 known volatile chemicals are released in the air when Styrofoam is incinerated, which makes it a critical public health concern because we breathe that air, and as students, our lungs are developing. So, it’s particularly harmful to us.

DHARNA NOOR: The bill would pose a $1,000.00 fine on any food service facilities that don’t comply.

JENN AISOSA: We’re not interested in fining local businesses. We’re really interested in making the change. Unfortunately, sometimes legislation needs to include fines to promote the behavior that we really want to see.

DHARNA NOOR: Some asked that the ban be expanded to better serve the city’s most vulnerable populations.

J. WYNTER MARTIN: If it’s possible to clarify that social service organizations, child care centers, nursing facilities, hospitals, detention facilities, and schools are not exempt.

DHARNA NOOR: The council committee didn’t hold a vote at the hearing. Instead, committee chair, Councilman Eric Costello, announced a follow up meeting next week to hear amendment proposals. For The Real News with Taylor Hebden, Dharna Noor, Baltimore.