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Restaurants in region exhibit acceptance in the face of looming ban on foam containers

Restaurants in region exhibit acceptance in the face of looming ban on foam containers
Humagalas, a restaurant in Bel Air, has done away with using Styrofoam carry-out containers, choosing instead to go with the more environmentally friendly and recyclable paper and plastic containers. (Matt Button / The Aegis)

A little less than a year out before Maryland’s ban on polystyrene foam is set to take effect, many restaurateurs in the region say they’re open to the change. Many more have already gone foam-free.

The ban on most containers, cups, plates and bowls made of the substance, colloquially called Styrofoam, takes effect July 1, 2020, for food service businesses. Violators will face fines of up to $250.

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The foam, which is a stubborn pollutant that frequently breaks down into small pieces animals can mistake for food, is also difficult to recycle.

Even though alternatives like paper and plastic containers are often more expensive, several area restaurant owners said they’re happy to make the switch, either because they’ve heard from customers who don’t like using Styrofoam, or because they themselves were interested in more eco-friendly options.

Humagalas, a hamburger restaurant in Bel Air, hasn’t used Styrofoam products since it opened in 2017, kitchen manager Rob Dubell said.

“The owners really wanted to do the eco-friendly thing instead of having all that Styrofoam,” Dubell said. “They spent a month looking for boxes.”

They ended up with paper options for their cups and containers, he added.

At Maiwand Kabob, a family-owned Afghan restaurant with locations in Columbia, Hanover, Linthicum Heights and Baltimore, management decided to get rid of its Styrofoam to-go containers before Maryland passed the ban, manager Zahida Rafiq said.

“We’ve had a lot of customers ask for it,” she said. “So we’re happy to do it.”

But this change is part of the reason the chain will likely have to increase its prices soon, Rafiq said. The cost of produce, meat and rent are on the rise, she said, and minimum wage will increase to $11 come January. Despite financial challenges, though, the business is preparing to open a new location in Fulton.

The Maryland Restaurant Association has heard from some restaurants with concerns about the ban’s costs on small businesses, said Melvin Thompson, senior vice president of government affairs and public policy.

“The ones who are more concerned are those that have a lot of carry-out business because they’re using a lot more of those containers, particularly those that do a lot of hot foods,” he said.

Nick Kourtsounis, owner of the Towson Diner in Baltimore County, said he’s seen customers bring in their own stainless steel straws, perhaps a signal that they’re looking for greener options for carrying out their food.

Because the restaurant primarily serves customers in-house, it doesn’t use a large volume of foam containers, so it’s prices shouldn’t be affected too dramatically by the change, Kourtsounis said.

Kourtsounis said he’s concerned it could become a “never-ending cycle.” Once restaurants turn away from Styrofoam and toward what is, in his experience, the next cheapest thing – plastic – legislators may push back on the usage of those products.

In fact, Del. Brooke Lierman, who co-sponsored the legislation with Del. Cheryl Kagan, told The Sun in April that the ban could be a great way to get Marylanders thinking about eliminating single-use plastics from their lives entirely.

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The ban, which became law in May without Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature, sets up Maryland as the first state to impose such a restriction. Maine has approved a similar ban, but it won’t take effect until 2021.

Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have already banned the foam, and officials there have pointed to cleaner stream banks as proof of the ban’s effectiveness.

Dan Singh, owner of Bondoori Wings in Columbia, said he switched to paper products in advance of the legislation. The extra cost was significant, he said, but he felt “putting profits aside” was an important step, due to the foam’s hefty environmental impact.

Basta Pasta in Fallston is looking into a different alternative, manager Foti Lykos said.

Even though it’s roughly double the price, the restaurant is planning to use sugarcane containers for salads with the aim of keeping them fresher, Lykos said.

The restaurant would have made the change regardless of the outcome of Maryland’s Styrofoam bill, he said, because they wanted to use a higher-quality material.

Tamberino’s Pizza & Subs in Bel Air recently switched a few of its containers over to a paper alternative, but they’re still serving drinks in Styrofoam cups, owner Dave Tamberino said.

Many Tamberino’s customers bring their food and drinks back to work with them after stopping by the restaurant during their lunch break and want durable packaging that can keep food warm and beverages cold.

“Already, customers have complained about it,” he said.

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