Pushed by students, Baltimore council considers ban on foam food containers

Reversing previous opposition, Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young says he supports banning stores and restaurants from using the plastic foam containers commonly known as Styrofoam.

Other attempts to ban foam cups and food containers have floundered, but the council has eight new members since the last time the idea was considered and now the support of the body’s influential leader.

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

“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 foam is a cheap way to package food, but when tossed away it often finds its way into the Inner Harbor, where it floats and breaks into ever smaller pieces. Some environmental activists also say the plastic could cause health problems, although federal officials have said there’s little reason to be concerned.

It remains unclear if the bill will attract enough support to pass. The seven-member committee did not vote Tuesday, instead scheduling a work session to consider amendments next week.

The bill faces stiff opposition from some restaurant and store owners, who argue that it will drive up costs, as well as from manufacturers of the food containers. At the hearing they faced off against environmental advocates and students from half a dozen city schools, who urged council members to adopt a ban.

London Blackston, one of those students, addressed the committee. Too short to reach the lectern, the fourth-grader at Federal Hill Preparatory School took a microphone in her hand.

“I think it’s time to put people’s health ahead of corporate profits,” she said. “American history is full of companies that no longer produce harmful products.”

Adam Lindquist, an environmental official at the Waterfront Partnership business group, said the Mr. Trash Wheel system has collected 700,000 of the containers since it went into operation.

“It is time for foam to go,” he said.

The ban covers food containers and cups and would impose a fine on businesses that failed to comply. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Washington, D.C., already have bans in place.

Jessica Wynter Martin, an advocate with the Energy Justice Network, urged the council to expand the ban beyond stores and restaurants to cover schools, detention centers and medical facilities. The city’s school board voted last month to phase out the use of foam lunch trays.

Opponents of the ban advanced two lines of argument: that it will do little to help clean up the harbor and that it will harm small businesses.

Packaging industry representatives said the city’s real problem was people littering, rather than the specific material that containers are made from.

Baltimore has a program to recycle the foam containers, but it’s not part of the regular recycling stream. One of the next least expensive food containers is made from a fiber that can be composted, but that also requires a special facility. Christopher Gerbes, who represents businesses in the packaging industry, said in an interview that the result of a ban would merely be “more expensive trash.”

Restaurant owners were split on the issue. Young said he had heard from 77 restaurants that supported the ban, but a restaurant trade group that represents about 300 businesses spoke against it.

David Stahl, the former owner of Pete’s Grille in Waverly, said his business had increasingly shifted away from customers eating in toward people getting takeout. He said the arrival of online food ordering services made the transition possible and was a lifeline for his business at a tough time, but it had come with the extra costs of packaging up food to send out. He said he wouldn’t be able to afford to raise costs to pay for more expensive containers.

“I don’t have pricing flexibility,” he said.

Melvin Thompson, a spokesman for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said restaurants were struggling across the city and it would be wrong to put an extra financial burden on them.

“This is a huge cost increase with no measurable benefit,” he said.

Councilman John Bullock, the lead sponsor of the ban, said after the hearing that he was encouraged by the council president’s support.

“I think we’re in a good place now,” he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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