Baltimore is approaching a disgusting milestone: By early next year, Waterfront Partnership will pull its one millionth expanded polystyrene foam food container from the harbor.
At nearly 22,000 containers per month, more than 700,000 of these containers have already been collected from the harbor since May of 2014 — more than enough for every resident of Baltimore to use one for lunch tomorrow. And by the end of the decade there will be enough for lunch and dinner. For every container pulled out of the harbor, there are countless more that line our streets, poison our waterways and fill our incinerators, unleashing known cancer-causing chemicals into the air. But despite our current trajectory, this future is not inevitable.
A coalition of environmental organizations, community associations, students, businesses, community members and Baltimore City Council members are taking a stand to support a bill that would ban the use of expanded polystyrene food containers. To date, 117 businesses, 10 community associations and hundreds of students have signed letters pledging their support for the proposed ban, which is sponsored by Councilman John Bullock. And last week, a council committee voted to advance the ban bill, paving the way for its eventual passage.
Momentum has been building across the city as this support results in action. The Baltimore City School Board voted in January to switch the trays used to serve more than 80,000 lunches to Baltimore City students from expanded polystyrene to a compostable material. Hundreds of independent businesses across the city have switched to better alternatives showing their support for the ban, ranging from Memsahib’s cozy spot in Lexington Market to big names lining the waterfront in Harbor East.
Over the last two months, Waterfront Partnership representatives talked about foam with businesses in the Inner Harbor and Fells Point and conducted a survey. A surprisingly high number of the 56 respondents — whose restaurants represent different sizes, price points and neighborhoods — were already completely foam free: 64 percent. All but three restaurants — 95 percent — had at least one foam alternative. Businesses are making alternatives work because they recognize the issues with expanded polystyrene, and so do their customers. Even more businesses would embrace alternatives once increased use drives down their cost.
More than 200 students and teachers from 14 Baltimore City schools, as part of the youth-led advocacy organization Baltimore Beyond Plastic showed up to a hearing for the bill at City Hall Feb. 6th. Standing on stools to reach the microphone, students, the youngest in second grade, asked the City Council to consider the environment they were leaving for future generations. Their testimony complemented that from community members who spoke of expanded polystyrene as a daily eyesore and health hazard, business officials who spoke about the ease of switching to alternative products and advocates who spoke of the lasting impact expanded polystyrene has on our environment.
This shift away from expanded polystyrene in Baltimore City is part of a state and nationwide trend. Dunkin Donuts just announced it will eliminate foam cups worldwide by 2020. More than 120 cities across the country have implemented bans on expanded polystyrene. Bans in Prince George’s County, Montgomery County, Takoma Park and Washington, D.C., already cover 2.5 million people and more than 15,000 businesses in Maryland. Washington, D.C., has reached nearly 90 percent compliance with the ban one year after its enactment with zero businesses applying for a waiver that would exempt them from the ban in the event of economic hardship. The same waiver in Prince George’s County has gone unused. In Annapolis, the General Assembly is currently considering a statewide ban introduced by Del. Brooke Lierman (House Bill 538) and Sen. Cheryl Kagan (SB 651).
At a time when Baltimore is facing a multitude of challenges with no easy solutions, banning expanded polystyrene is an easy choice. The evidence is strong, the precedent is there, the alternatives are accessible, and the support is loud. The City Council has a chance to show Baltimore is a leader in protecting the health and environment of its residents. Let’s show the next generation we see them, we hear them and we respect them by stopping the unchecked spread of this environmentally damaging pollutant in our streets and waterways.
Leanna Wetmore is a community coordinator with the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore; her email is Leanna@waterfrontpartnership.org. Also contributing to this article was Angela Haren, director of advocacy and Baltimore Harbor waterkeeper at Blue Water Baltimore; Claire Jordan, advocacy and outreach manager at Trash Free Maryland; and Claire Wayner, student leader and co-founder of Baltimore Beyond Plastic.