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Howard County Council passes bill prohibiting use of certain single-use plastic by restaurants and retailers

The Howard County Council passed the Plastics Reduction Act in a 4-1 vote Monday night, prohibiting the use of certain single-use plastic by restaurants and retailers.

The legislation, introduced last month by County Council member Christiana Mercer Rigby, Vice Chair Opel Jones and Chair Liz Walsh, aims to limit single-use plastic such as straws, stirrers and certain condiment packets in the county by requiring retailers and restaurants to supply alternatives and by asking before giving out condiment packets and plastic ware to customers.

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Rigby and environmental advocates have been pushing for increased personal responsibility by consumers as a method of plastic reduction in the county.

After a vigorous debate during the February work session, in which members of the restaurant industry pushed sponsors to recognize the realities of the legislation for individual businesses, Rigby introduced four amendments. All four amendments passed unanimously Monday night.

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One amendment removed cup lids from the definition of “plastic food ware” and exempted small cups of condiments from the prohibitions that apply to food service facilities. Another clarified that the prohibition does not cover certain compostable or reusable straws and stirrers. The fourth amendment addressed food sales at drive-thru locations.

The amendment that triggered the most contentious debate of the evening will allow a food service facility to continue offering certain plastic food ware and condiment packets in a self-serve area.

County Council member David Yungmann, the only no vote on the final legislation, pushed the council members to table the legislation in favor of more adjustments by way of new amendments. Yungmann was not satisfied with the definition of self-serve area and had concerns that the council was leaving too much up to regulators.

“Once the law is passed, it’s passed,” Yungmann said. “The people who have to implement this bill have to implement it as passed.”

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County Council member Deb Jung, who also voted to table the legislation, had similar concerns about the verbiage but ultimately voted in favor.

Jung argued this was not a time to be vague about legislation that so directly affected the livelihoods of business owners. She said that in a time when people are dependent on takeout rather than dine-in eating amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, making language clear provides comfort to the restaurant industry.

Meanwhile, Rigby argued that the 18-month implementation period would allow time for any confusion to be cleared up.

“This has gotten to where it should be,” Rigby said of the legislation. “I don’t know what would be exempted, or watered down or changed.”

At the state level, Del. Sara Love, a Democrat from Montgomery County, has introduced a Comprehensive Plastic Ban bill, which “requires hotels to stop providing single-use toiletry containers, bans plastic utensils and stirrers, and requires straws to be given upon request only.”

During the vote, Yungmann argued that the council should wait to see what happens with Love’s legislation before voting on the Plastics Reduction Act, but he did not have enough support from colleagues to do so.

“If we waited 30 days, we’d be able to see what happened at the state level,” Yungmann said. “I think this is a huge mistake.”

In December, Montgomery County passed a similar bill to Howard’s proposal that included a ban on PLA straws, which are made of biodegradable materials but still take years to break down and are a source of pollution. The PLA ban is also included in the Howard legislation.

“The issue is not just the plastic we see, it’s the plastic we don’t see as well,” Rigby said. “I hope this commonsense approach provides a road map for other jurisdictions in Maryland.”

County Executive Calvin Ball said Tuesday he plans to sign the legislation into law. It will go into effect in January, and enforcement will start July 1, 2022.

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