At the Woody's Taco Island food truck, customers get their marinated tilapia, Caribbean fried rice and jerk chicken chili in cardboard containers, which are environmentally friendly.
But at Mueller's Delicatessen, a family establishment in Northeast Baltimore for 67 years, owner Ken Mueller said carryout customers would balk at the price rise using paper would bring. Paper cups cost 30 cents each, as opposed to three-cent foam cups made of polystyrene, which take longer to degrade and which clog the Chesapeake Bay.
City Council members have backed off efforts to ban the foam products from restaurants — even as major retailers are phasing out such containers, including the recent pledge by McDonald's to switch to paper cups for its McCafe coffee.
The potential impact of a ban on Baltimore businesses recently prompted an influential commission to recommend against the legislation, dooming it for now.
Instead, the Commission on Sustainability and others are recommending the city start with a more basic approach to getting the foam products out of the Inner Harbor and other waterways by providing — and emptying — more trash cans around the city. Such an approach is also supported by the American Chemistry Council, the industry group that represents polystyrene makers. Although commonly called Styrofoam, the cups and containers in question are actually made of polystyrene foam.
Mueller said the city should look toward other solutions to the littering that sends foam cups and containers to the Inner Harbor and other waterways rather than forcing restaurants to replace polystyrene products.
"We're small businesses trying to compete with the big guys, so we try to keep our costs down," Mueller said. "Why should we be penalized? Let us run our own businesses."
Willy Dely, a marketing rep for the Woody's food truck, said customers requested the change to cardboard. And the restaurant operators figured a ban was imminent and wanted to be proactive.
"If it's good for the environment, we could all do our best to help out, too," said Dely, a former president of the Maryland Mobile Food Vendors Association. He said the owners of Woody's were able to absorb the higher cost without raising prices.
Costs could vary greatly from one company to another, depending on which product is chosen and how many are purchased, but a city analysis shows alternatives to foam cost roughly double.
Councilman William "Pete" Welch says that's precisely the problem. Welch, who represents West Baltimore, including Harlem Park and Sandtown-Winchester, said he applauds Councilman James B. Kraft for proposing a ban on polystyrene products, but said the city should look toward other solutions.
"I live in a price-sensitive district," Welch said. "A number of my constituents make their decisions based on the price of things. It's a good bill. It's just not a good bill for all the neighborhoods."
Welch was one of 11 co-sponsors to the legislation Kraft filed in June 2012, but he and others, including council members Edward Reisinger and Sharon Green Middleton, have since withdrawn their support.
Four politically connected lobbyists are registered in the city to represent the American Chemistry Council, a leading opponent of the bill, including Sean Malone and Lisa Harris Jones. Several community groups testified in support of the measure, citing environmental concerns.
The bill made it to the full council for a vote in June but was sent back to committee, where it has languished. The proposed ban has been postponed indefinitely since the city's Commission on Sustainability decided to oppose the legislation.
The commission voted in September against recommending the bill, saying that it would be too costly for local restaurants and carryouts. The experience of other cities, such as San Francisco, suggests a ban wouldn't necessarily achieve Baltimore's environmental goals, the panel said.
After San Francisco banned polystyrene in 2007, that city found the amount of foam litter collected decreased by 41 percent, but the volume of other waste, such as plastic packaging and paper cups, increased.
Aphra and Sam Adkins of Arlington, Va., came to Lexington Market for lunch this week, settling on a hearty serving of corned beef and cabbage heaped into a foam container.
"I think Styrofoam is awful, but it's also awful if a local business gets hurt," Aphra Adkins said. "It would be great if all these places could use local produce and organic meat, too. But this would be $20 instead of $5."
Sajjad Shariff said keeping costs low at his family's Mexican Delight stand at the downtown market is key to competing with places like Chipotle. Making sure the cost of his grilled chicken stuffed burrito stays under $5 requires juggling a number of business decisions, he said.