Baltimore set to ban Styrofoam use

The Baltimore City Council is poised to forbid city businesses from using polystyrene foam containers for carryout food and drink -- a bill that Mayor Catherine E. Pugh has pledged to sign into law.

By an unanimous vote Monday night, the council gave preliminary approval to the bill that Councilman John Bullock introduced as an effort to cut down on the number of foam cups floating in Baltimore’s waterways. The bill would enact criminal fines on businesses that fail to comply with a ban that states that “no food service facility may use any disposable food” container made from polystyrene foam, commonly called Styrofoam.

The overwhelming display of support comes after several previous attempts failed to overcome opposition from stores and restaurants, which continue to resist an environmental initiative that has been enacted in other parts of Maryland and in Washington. A final vote is still required at the council’s next meeting in March before the measure is sent to Pugh, but it is considered largely a formality.

“We look at all the litter in our waterways. It’s not biodegradable. It’s not actually being recycled,” Bullock said. “For the most part, it’s ending up in landfills or being incinerated. In water, it breaks apart into small pieces, which makes it very difficult to clear up the water and dangerous for wildlife.”

Violating the law would be a misdemeanor that carries a $1,000 fine. Bullock said he was not worried that the measure makes it a criminal offense.

“I don’t expect anyone to go to jail because of this,” he said. “There is a fine attached to it. We want to change behavior.”

The mayor said she plans to support the legislation because the council agreed to amend the bill and give city businesses 18 months to comply with the foam ban after she signs it.

“The good thing is it gives folks time to transform into a more environmentally friendly material,” Pugh said. “I think 18 months ought to be enough time.”

The foam is a cheap way to package food and a popular method for serving carryout coffee, business owners say. But environmentalists say that when the material is discarded it often ends up in the Inner Harbor, where it breaks into ever-smaller floating pieces which can harm wildlife.

Baltimore is not alone in its concern. The city would join other jurisdictions in the area with similar bans, including Washington, Takoma Park, and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

Restaurant and store owners who have resisted the bill say the ban will increase their costs and do little to clean up the harbor.

“It is puzzling and disappointing that the Baltimore City Council is becoming more involved with policies affecting the minutiae of restaurant operation,” said Melvin R. Thompson, vice president at the Restaurant Association of Maryland. “This type of unwarranted focus on the restaurant industry exacerbates the operational challenges already facing city restaurants.”

The ban is the latest of repeated attempts to pass similar legislation. In 2013, the council postponed action on a proposed ban after several members withdrew their support.

Bullock introduced a new bill after calculating that younger, more progressive council members voted into office in December 2016 might support the concept. When he introduced the bill last year, Bullock stood on the council floor with a cluster of white foam products that had become mushed together in the water — underscoring the point that the products remain in water for long periods.

A key moment for the bill’s success came this month when council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced his support for a measure he had previously opposed. Young shifted his position at the urging of city school students.

Young, who once called the ban “anti-business,” said at a committee hearing on the measure that he’d been convinced to support it after schoolchildren lobbied him.

“I asked them questions, and they came back with tough answers,” he said. “They were really educated and knew exactly what they wanted to say.”

The council also was pushed by environmental activists.

Claire Jordan of Trash Free Maryland called the council’s vote “an important step forward for the health of the Baltimore City environment, for future generations, and for taxpayers, and puts Baltimore city on the right path to be a leader on trash and litter pollution.”

Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, said her organization’s trash-cleaning service called Mr. Trash Wheel picks up 175,000 foam containers a year.

“The Waterfront Partnership looks forward to spending less money on trash cleanups and more on beautification projects,” Schwartz said.

The council also granted preliminary approval for a bill that would bar restaurants from including sodas and other sugary drinks as default options in children’s meals, a move supporters say could improve children’s health. The bill would still allow families to request a soda if desired.

“Many people say we are attacking industry. We’re not attacking industry. We are doing something we haven’t done for too long: focusing on our children,” said City Councilman Brandon Scott, the bill’s lead sponsor.

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