Maryland is set to become the first state to go foam-free. What will it cost?

About 115,000 polystyrene foam cups and carry-out containers washed down Baltimore’s Jones Falls last year — but that’s only an estimate, because so many of them are reduced to fragments and tiny pellets by the time they float into the Inner Harbor.

One of the most common plastics, the foam is an intractable pollutant. It’s ubiquitous but difficult to recycle. It continually breaks down into pieces but isn’t considered biodegradable. It often picks up toxins in the environment, delivering them into the food chain when animals mistake foam pellets for food.


The solution, Maryland lawmakers decided, is to ban the substance, known colloquially as styrofoam. The state is set to become the first in the country to forbid restaurants, coffee shops and grocery stores from using most foam products — cups, plates, bowls and clamshell containers — effective July 1, 2020. Violators would face fines up to $250.

Tom Anuszewski, general manager at Sea King Crab House and Pig Picker's BBQ, fills lunch orders. Most of the menu selections are packed in foam containers. The General Assembly passed a bill that will ban polystyrene foam. Alternative packaging could add significant cost.
Tom Anuszewski, general manager at Sea King Crab House and Pig Picker's BBQ, fills lunch orders. Most of the menu selections are packed in foam containers. The General Assembly passed a bill that will ban polystyrene foam. Alternative packaging could add significant cost.(Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

The move would put Maryland at the forefront of environmental policymaking, further expanding on what proponents say is the demonstrated effectiveness of local foam bans in places such as Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. But it frustrates business owners like Eric King, who said the law would drive up costs at his restaurant and carryout business.


At Sea King Crab House in Ellicott City, King gives customers their leftovers in heavy-duty recyclable plastic containers. But for the carry-out side of the business, he said, foam containers are the only affordable vessels that keep steamed shrimp or French fries warm without getting soggy themselves.

“It’s going to drive prices up,” he said, estimating an increase from 5 cents per foam container to $1 or more for plastic alternatives. “It’s not something you can just absorb.”

Proponents say restaurants elsewhere have accommodated the bans without significant impact on them or their customers. Since Prince George’s and Montgomery counties approved foam bans in 2016, no businesses have come forward seeking exemption, and stream banks have gotten noticeably cleaner, said Adam Ortiz, the former environmental director in Prince George’s, who now holds a similar position in Montgomery.

“It’s hard for a restaurant to make the case they need styrofoam when there’s literally hundreds examples of other businesses that have chosen more sustainable products,” Ortiz said. “We’ve seen little to no styrofoam on the side of the road or in streams.”

Maryland could soon be the test case for whether an entire state can truly go foam-free. (Hawaii also was considering a statewide ban this year, but the legislature deferred the bill.)

The legislation faces a potential veto from Gov. Larry Hogan, who has not publicly taken a stance on it. A spokesman said the Republican executive was reviewing it.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh signed a pair of bills at a City Hall ceremony Thursday. One bans the use of foam food containers in the city and the other stops restaurants from offering sodas and other sugary drinks as part of children's menus.

But because a supermajority of the General Assembly approved it, any veto is likely to be overridden. The lawmakers and advocates who pushed for the foam ban are already looking beyond the governor, hoping the measure raises awareness about more than just foam pollution.

Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the proposal with Montgomery Democratic Sen. Cheryl Kagan, called the foam ban just a “first step” away from a throwaway consumer culture.

“My hope is that people will realize, ‘My streets are cleaner, our rivers are cleaner, I’m not seeing this form of trash, and I don’t even miss it,’ and want to do more to eliminate single-use plastics from our lives entirely,” Lierman said.

Measuring foam pollution is difficult, because about 95 percent of the material is virtually weightless. It consists of bubbles of air trapped within plastic. But environmental groups that clean it up from curbs and marshes say it makes up a significant volume of the waste bound for landfills.

Trash “trawls” around the Baltimore harbor routinely turn up hundreds of polystyrene food containers. Only cigarette butts outnumber the count of foam vessels captured by Mr. Trash Wheel, one of three waste collectors the Healthy Harbor Initiative operates around Baltimore.

The foam ban law seeks to combat that waste by outlawing polystyrene foam from eateries, grocery stores and hospital or school cafeterias. Any business considered to be in the “food service” industry would be prohibited from selling foam wares.


But it doesn’t banish all forms of foam within Maryland borders. Grocers still would be allowed to sell eggs and fresh meat, fish or poultry packaged in or on foam trays, though they could not sell foam cups or plates. The legislation wouldn’t affect businesses that don’t sell food, or regulate use of foam products in homes, other than restricting where Maryland residents and companies can legally buy those items.

And the policy doesn’t limit use of blocks of polystyrene foam used in packaging to secure electronics or other fragile products.

With approval from both General Assembly chambers, Maryland’s legislature has moved the state toward becoming the first in the U.S. to ban polystyrene foam food containers and cups. The ban would start in 2020.

Polystyrene foam product maker DART Container Corp. has distribution centers in Havre de Grace and Hampstead that contain stores of foam products that it sells to food-service businesses across the country, but won’t be able to sell within Maryland once the law goes into effect.

Paul Poe, DART’s manager of government affairs and environment, said the company is hoping to continue talks with the Hogan administration to reduce the law’s potential impact on DART and its 800 Maryland employees.

“We’re not pulling up stakes or anything like that, but it was a bit of a disappointment that we couldn’t have reached some kind of a deal” with lawmakers, Poe said.

Foam cups at Dunkin' Donuts will soon be history, removing what the company estimates will be a billion of them each year from the waste stream.

Food-service business owners say rising packaging costs are only the latest burden Maryland lawmakers have delivered to them. Earlier during this year’s General Assembly session, legislators voted to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 by 2025. During last year’s session, they mandated businesses with at least 15 employees to offer at least five days of paid sick leave to part-time employees.

“We can’t absorb it all,” said Wayne Resnick, president of Martin’s Caterers, which employs 600 people across the state. “We care about all these things. We care about the people that work for us. It’s just tough when all this stuff gets mandated within a couple years.”

Business groups, including the Restaurant Association of Maryland and the Maryland Retailers Association, have been leading the opposition.

Critics also have raised concern about the cost to the public.

When Anne Arundel County Council passed a foam ban in February, county schools officials estimated alternatives to foam containers could cost them nearly $700,000. Spread that across two dozen public school systems statewide, and it adds up to millions, opponents argue.


And opponents question the effectiveness of the ban when many alternatives to foam aren’t as environmentally friendly as many would like to think. They point out that some “compostable” paper containers require industrial equipment to break down easily, otherwise remaining intact in landfills. And, they note, the market for recyclable plastic containers has suffered over the past year, since China has stopped buying them from the United States. Food waste is considered a contaminant that reduces the value of recyclable plastic.

But proponents say there’s more reasons than not to move away from foam.

Maryland’s lawmakers have agreed on the details of how to increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, allowing the measure to move to Gov. Larry Hogan, who opposes such a significant increase.

More than half of the state’s residents live in jurisdictions that already have approved a foam ban — including Baltimore, where a foam ban enacted last year goes into effect in October — said Kagan, the measure’s Senate sponsor.

And while the statewide measure might require more widespread adjustment and added costs at first, Kagan said, it could help drive demand for cheaper options made from paper, plastic or even corn starch and sugar cane. The Democrat called it the most popular issue she’s worked on in Annapolis.

“The market will demand alternatives,” she said.

Advocates for a cleaner Baltimore harbor already are looking ahead to progress in the beleaguered ecosystem.

Volunteers from Blue Water Baltimore, Trash Free Maryland and the National Aquarium trawled the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River last summer with the goal of establishing a baseline foam level in the ecosystem, and they plan to repeat it twice more, after the city and state bans go into effect.

Adam Lindquist, executive director of the Healthy Harbor Initiative, said that while Mr. Trash Wheel and counterparts Professor Trash Wheel and Captain Trash Wheel have collectively filtered nearly a million pieces of foam from city waterways over the past five years, that’s “not a happy story.”

What would be better, he said, is if foam were the first type of litter to disappear.

Tides had discarded pieces of boat docks, driftwood, plastic bottles, bits of Styrofoam, even a dented crab pot onto the pebble beach along the Patapsco River just east of the Key Bridge.

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