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Banning foam cups: City Council members conclude the cost outweighs the benefits

Laws and LegislationRestaurant and Catering IndustryDining and DrinkingConsumer Goods IndustriesBusiness

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.

Shariff left a job at a bank to help his father realize his dream of owning — rather than working in — a Mexican restaurant. Switching to plastic containers, which he said cost 15 cents compared with seven cents, would squeeze margins even more.

"Our customers are not ready to pay the extra costs," said Shariff, who provides some plastic containers for customers who request them.

For Young Hwang, boxing up his fried chicken in polystyrene keeps the thighs, drumsticks and livers hotter and not soggy. He made some small changes at his Super Fried Chicken stand, like providing plastic bags only when a customer requests them, to address environmental concerns.

"It's good for the service," Hwang said of the foam takeout boxes. "To cool down faster is not great for the customer."

Kraft argues the potential effect on businesses is overblown and he has pledged to continue to push for the ban. He said he could call for a hearing any time over the next three years once he believes he has rebuilt enough support for the ban to pass.

"Styrofoam is a very easy pollutant for people to identify — all they have to do is go to [the] harbor and they see it," Kraft said. "And it's a very easy pollutant to remove because there are so many other materials to use. Most of your fast food industry doesn't use Styrofoam anymore."

Kraft first proposed a ban in 2006.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the mayor would sign a ban should one get to her desk. But that's unlikely, according to Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young.

"Listen, it's not business-friendly, and I am not going to support it," Young said. "It's a people problem. It's not a product problem. People need to dispose of things that they feel are environmentally unsafe in a proper manner. We can't just outlaw everything."

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she continues to support a ban and believes imposing one in Baltimore is only a matter of time.

"Styrene lives forever, clogging up storm drains and our waterways," Clarke said. "We need to eliminate it from Baltimore City. A year after we do everyone will find a way to cope successfully."

Councilman Bill Henry said that while he pledged his support to the legislation, he would prefer a different solution. He said when approached by the American Chemistry Council on the issue, he encouraged the organization to help the city devise ways to expand its polystyrene recycling.

The industry group offers cash prizes for the Clean Community Competition, which judges Baltimore neighborhoods based on efforts to keep streets and alleys debris-free and storm drains clear. He said the industry may find more success creating behavioral change by reinvesting that money in a curbside polystyrene recycling program.

"You still have to have people pick it up off the ground and put it in the container," Henry said. "We've got to teach thousands of our residents that the ground is not an appropriate trash or recycling container."

The foam can be recycled but isn't biodegradable. The city accepts the cups and containers at its recycling center on Sisson Street, but the foam products aren't part of the curbside pickup program.

Halle Van der Gaag, director of Blue Water Baltimore, said the consensus among environmentalists is that polystyrene is hazardous to birds, fish and ecosystems. But the timing might not be right for the city to force a ban.

"We just need to look at it and understand the issue comprehensively," Van der Gaag said. "If we're banning Styrofoam, we have to make sure we're not replacing it with another source of trash."

ywenger@baltsun.com

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