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Howard County Council looks to limit single-use plastic in restaurants, retailers

Three members of the Howard County Council introduced legislation this month to prohibit the use of certain single-use plastic by restaurants and retailers.

The Plastics Reduction Act 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 to straws and stirrers and by asking before giving out condiment packets and plasticware to customers.

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County Council member Christiana Mercer Rigby, who introduced the bill along with Chair Liz Walsh and Vice Chair Opel Jones, said the legislation is all about an incremental, thoughtful change in behavior.

“There are many restaurants in Howard County that are already doing this,” Rigby said, referring to asking before handing out plastic products. “The biggest change that I hope residents see is less plastic pollution in our community.”

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Pat Hersey, president of Less Plastic Please, a citizen-run organization in Howard County, brought the proposal to Rigby after the council passed a 5-cent fee on disposable plastic bags used in stores in 2019, which was also proposed by Less Plastic Please.

“We’re not just about [plastic] bags, so we’re going to keep checking things off the list,” Hersey said. “[We are] continuing to move toward a better environment and [making] people aware of the atrocities of single-use plastic. Not unlike the bag bill, it’s going to be about consumer awareness.”

Many establishments have already moved from plastic straws and stirrers to paper.

“Our goal in all of this is to change behavior. Hopefully having that additional awareness will help,” Hersey said. “This will really put Howard County in a strong place in terms of plastic legislation. We’re really excited about what this says about Howard County.”

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Hersey said there are trillions of condiment packets, like single-use ketchup, made a year that end up in streams and oceans. Asking before handing out those packets could dramatically reduce that number, she said.

“When they go to a place, they’ll have to ask for a condiment package or silverware and hopefully that will spark a conversation,” Hersey said.

Both Hersey and Rigby said they’ve heard from concerned Howard residents about the challenges restaurants and retailers could face in balancing the potential changes in county regulation with the effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Rigby said retailers and restaurants wouldn’t have to throw away supplies they currently have; if the legislation passes, they would be able to slowly give them out by request while adopting the new policy.

Cailey Locklair, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, said Rigby reached out to the organization when drafting the legislation.

“We are thankful to her for speaking to us. [We are] supportive of upon-request legislation and are not opposing her bill,” Locklair said.

Melvin Thompson, senior vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said Tuesday the group opposes the legislation as it is currently drafted.

Rigby also said she is mindful of the bill’s implications within the disability community. Many individuals with disabilities need straws to consume food and drinks, and some alternatives to plastic ones don’t work for them. For example, paper straws can be easy for some people with limited jaw control to bite through.

That’s why there is not an outright ban, Rigby said. “We recognize that a plastic straw might be the best option for some people, and we don’t want to take that away,” she said.

At the state level, Del. Sara Love has introduced the Comprehensive Plastic Ban this session, which “requires hotels to stop providing single-use toiletry containers, bans plastic utensils and stirrers, and requires straws to be given upon request only.” That bill is scheduled for a committee hearing in the Maryland House of Delegates this week.

In December, Montgomery County passed a similar bill to Howard’s proposal that included a ban on PLA straws. It’s a feature Hersey is happy the three County Council members included in the Howard legislation.

PLA, or polylactic acid, is made from cornstarch or sugar cane and, when used in straws, it acts a lot like traditional straws many consumers are used to, but it’s made from renewable resources. PLA straws, however, require specific conditions to properly decompose, which means they pose a similar pollution threat as plastic ones.

“We live on a finite planet, and we live in such a linear way,” Hersey said. “If an alien came down, they would say, ‘This is lunacy.’ Just to be gentle and kind to our environment is such a small ask.”

Rigby is hopeful the bill and subsequent conversations lead the consumer market to create better alternatives for single-use plastic products, like utensils.

If it passes, the legislation would go into effect in January 2022, and enforcement would start July 1, 2022.

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