As the coronavirus pandemic continues to shift much restaurant dining from eat-in to takeout, Maryland next week becomes the first state in the nation to ban the familiar foam containers used to carry home everything from crab cakes to curries.
A state law that goes into effect Oct. 1 prohibits restaurants, schools and other food service outlets from using polystyrene containers, more commonly and erroneously known as Styrofoam. The law originally was scheduled to take effect July 1, but because of pandemic-related shutdowns, state officials allowed more time for affected businesses to use remaining stock.
The new law comes at a time when restaurants are using veritable mountains of disposables — for takeout, but also to follow federal health recommendations that they give even dine-in customers single-use plates and utensils.
As a result, trash collection has swelled across America, rising 22% in Baltimore at the height of the pandemic.
While environmentalists say that makes the ban even more critical, many restaurants decry the added expense of shifting to more costly alternatives to foam. Already, they say, dining restrictions have drastically cut their business, and looming ahead Jan. 1 is a 60-cent increase in the hourly minimum wage.
“The restaurant industry has just taken it on the chin with the coronavirus,” said John Leonard, whose Baltimore-based wholesale supply business has been helping area restaurants transition from foam. “They’re struggling to stay afloat.”
But environmentalists say the new law will have long-term benefits, removing a material made with fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change, and that clogs landfills, pollutes the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways and ultimately harms wildlife, people and the planet.
Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s environment secretary, said that by prohibiting polystyrene and embracing more sustainable materials, the state will serve as a model for other jurisdictions with similar bans in the pipeline.
“We will learn how best to implement it," Grumbles said, "and other states will watch us closely.”
Maine, New York and Vermont have passed bans on polystyrene food containers, although none have yet taken effect. Other states are weighing similar legislation.
Many Marylanders may not even notice a difference come Thursday, because more than half live in localities with existing bans on foam containers ― Baltimore City, Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Some frequent diners say they welcome the statewide mandate, even if their cupboards are already overflowing with plastic containers from restaurants that they wash and reuse.
“If it’s better for the environment, I’m all for it,” said Arli Lima, a food blogger who lives in downtown Baltimore.
A former bartender who blogs as “Arli’s Appetite," she often is accompanied on dining adventures with a friend who has long been a stickler for how their doggy bags are packaged.
“She always asks for a piece of foil," Lima, said. “She will not let us go home with Styrofoam.”
Lima said she’s noticed that while corner, carryout-only places often still use foam containers, other restaurants now use “cute little boxes” that become part of their brand.
“It’s almost like an extension of the restaurant,” she said. “It lends a lasting impression.”
The Restaurant Association of Maryland says foam is “durable and cost-effective” compared to alternatives that are “twice to triple the cost and do not generally provide the same performance,” said Melvin R. Thompson, the trade group’s senior vice president for government affairs.
The compostable bagasse products made from a byproduct of sugarcane, for example, don’t always hold up well with soupy or saucy foods, said Leonard, of the 80-year-old Leonard Paper Company.
The ban will require a switch for Captain Dan’s Crabhouse in Eldersburg. Aside from the crabs that are piled in paper bags, everything from soups to steamed shrimp typically goes out the door in foam containers.
They are cheap and insulating, said owner Dan Schuman, who in anticipation of the new law has purchased plastic containers from Leonard.
“We don’t like increased costs,” says Schuman, who switched to carryout-only at the start of the pandemic. “No restaurant does. Because we have to pass that onto the customer.”
Schuman says he’ll raise prices to cover the costs of the more expensive plastic containers, the impending minimum wage increase and the loss of foam inventory he won’t use up by Thursday.
But another restaurateur, Susan Nardyz, said foam alternatives only cost her about 10-15 cents more per piece so "we haven’t really passed it onto our guests.”
Nardyz, who co-owns RockSalt Grille in Westminster, has already switched from foam containers to compostable ones. By the last week of September, the only foam she still had on hand were kids' cups, soon to be replaced with biodegradable products.
“It’s been going great,” she said.
For one thing, it keeps her growing number of carryout customers happy.
“We tend to get a trendy crowd who were not very happy when were using the Styrofoam,” Nardyz said. “They seem very pleased that we switched over.”
Maryland Del. Brooke Lierman, who shepherded the law’s passage during the 2019 General Assembly session after two unsuccessful previous attempts, said the public is demanding products that leave less damage on the environment.
“There’s really a steadily growing awareness of the real and present harm single-use plastics cause,” the Baltimore Democrat said. “Businesses and Marylanders are even more alarmed by this, and really looking to government to come up with solutions for this waste.”
The ban became law without the signature of Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.
Detractors say alternatives to foam don’t always live up to their promises — plastic containers don’t get washed out and recycled or reused, and compostable ones aren’t always compostable without special equipment. Instead, they say, they end up in the same waste stream as the foam they replaced.
Adam Ortiz, director of the Environmental Protection Department of Montgomery County, said that even if some of the containers end up in the trash or littered, they still are less harmful than foam. Polystyrene tends to break up into tiny pieces that are harder to clean up, remaining in the environment to do damage. Plus, there’s at least a chance other kinds of containers will be recycled, unlike foam which for the most part can’t be.
Ortiz credits Montgomery County’s polystyrene ban, along with similar ones in Washington and Prince George’s County, with helping to reduce litter and pollution in the Anacostia River watershed. And no one seems to miss those once familiar foam containers, he said.
“We forget Styrofoam was ever even legal,” Ortiz said. “We go out of the area, and we’re just puzzled to see it in other places.”
In Baltimore, a foam ban that went into effect last year has already helped clear waterways, according to Adam Lindquist, director of the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative.
Clearwater Mills, the company that runs the city’s trash wheels to divert garbage from the Inner Harbor, has seen a 40% reduction in foam containers, he said. Lindquist said he expects the statewide ban to produce even greater reductions.
Waste has become a greater concern during the pandemic, as sanitation departments are straining under a major uptick in garbage. In Baltimore, for example, workers are collecting more refuse than usual, currently 14% more and down from a high of 22% earlier in the pandemic. The extra volume, combined with staff shortages due to workers falling ill with COVID-19 or staying home rather than risk contracting it, prompted the city to suspend pickups of recyclables until Nov. 1.
Amy Langrehr, a Baltimore food writer and former restaurant consultant, said that many food containers are “nice” enough to wash and re-use several times, such as the lidded boxes that sushi comes in. She also has found that even if you don’t compost yourself, there are groups like the Baltimore Compost Collective. Until the pandemic struck, they picked up food scraps to turn into compost at and for the Filbert Street Community Garden. While it has suspended pickups, it still accepts them at the Waverly farmers market every Saturday.
Kate Breimann, state director of the advocacy group Environment Maryland, said that while it’s important to monitor what happens to the alternatives to foam, there is a larger issue.
“We aren’t urging a switch from one single-use item to another single-use item,” she said. “First and foremost, we want to shift away from the culture of single-use.”
Breimann said implementing previous measures to protect the environment once loomed difficult as well, but have since paid off.
“We think about when we had leaded gas and leaded paint, and people said, ‘It’s going to be hard for the industry,' " she said. “But now we have a healthier world."
In addition to restaurants, school systems will need to replace foam products used in their cafeterias, the costs of which should be relatively minimal, according to legislative analysts.
Baltimore County Public School estimated it would cost about $281,000 to $304,000 more to buy cafeteria trays made out of alternatives to foam, according to an analysis done by the General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services in 2019. By contrast, the district’s total food services budget was close to $50 million annually.
Not all polystyrene will vanish. Still allowed are the foam trays, cartons and bowls at grocery stores bearing meat, poultry, eggs and prepackaged foods like ramen noodles, as are the “peanuts” used as cushioning in some packages.
Grumbles said his department received 52 requests for waivers or extensions but did not grant any of them except for the overall three-month delay in the law’s effective date. The law will be enforced by the counties, with a maximum $250 fine.
There remains some resistance. Carroll County’s commissioners, for example, agreed to let its health department check for compliance as part of its regular inspection process, but said it should be up to the state Department of the Environment to impose fines for violators. Grumbles, however, said the law puts that responsibility on the counties.
As the first state in the country to ban foam food containers, Maryland will be a “very good case study,” said Chris Reddy, a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
If researchers find the law helps improve Maryland’s waterways, that could help guide future policy around the world and “turn off the faucet” of supplying polystyrene into the water.
He cautions that rigorous studies will be necessary. Last year, he co-authored a report that said, contrary to conventional wisdom, polystyrene foam may not last for thousands of years. Instead, the researchers found, when exposed to sunlight it does break down in centuries or even decades.
When it comes to the impact of pollutants on oceans, “we just really don’t know a lot about plastics,” he said.
The statewide bans that are in the offing could change that.
“Now you have the opportunity to see how things change," Reddy said, “or don’t change.”