Baltimore seems to have a littering problem. But rather than encourage citizens to discard waste appropriately—say, in recycling containers—the city is finding it easier and more convenient to ban EPS foam carry-out containers outright. And not just ban these containers, but actually make restaurant owners criminals if they dare defy the ban! Using EPS foam carry-out containers is a misdemeanor that carries a $1,000 fine.
The ban was instigated by Baltimore City Councilman John Bullock, who told the Baltimore Sun that he doesn’t “expect anyone to go to jail because of this. There is a fine attached to it. We want to change behavior.”
If Councilman Bullock wants to “change behavior,” I say he should begin by fining litterbugs! If people were fined $100 for littering—remember those signs we used to see around our cities?—the municipality could fill its coffers and maybe, just maybe, people would think twice before throwing trash into the waterways. After all, we’re not talking just about plastic—glass, metal, textiles and more are thrown into waterways. Most of that stuff sinks; plastic—especially EPS foam—floats. That makes the material an easy target because it’s visible.
Betsy Bowers, Executive Director of the EPS Industry Alliance (Crofton, MD), told PlasticsToday that Baltimore has a program to collect floating trash in the city’s waterways. “Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel collects a lot of polystyrene on top of the water because it floats,” she said. “The Mr. Trash Wheel program released a great report on the various materials it is able to collect because it picks the trash off the top of the water. What drops to the bottom doesn’t get collected.”
Bowers said she believes that the ban is a result of public opinion and many of the misperceptions and misinformation surrounding EPS foam. “Restaurant owners don’t support [the ban on EPS] because there’s no environmentally good alternative,” Bowers said. “We know that coated paper is not a good alternative.”
Bowers is right about that. As I’ve written before, paper coated with polymer is not recyclable, which means it must be put into landfill.
The citizens of Baltimore have eight drop off locations, including a convenience center where they can drop off recyclables that aren’t picked up through regular pickups. Additionally, Bowers noted that there is “quite a large dumpster dedicated to EPS that is picked up regularly.”
Two years ago, the city of Baltimore applied for the EPS Industry Alliance’s EPS Excellence in Recycling award, but it came in second place. Perhaps there are some sour grapes among city council people?
Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young told the Baltimore Sun that he was once against the ban but after talking to some elementary school children about the ban, he was convinced it was the right thing to do.
“It’s challenging for cities when they have an activist who is well meaning but not necessarily well informed,” said Bowers. “School children don’t know any better. They think they are doing something good. We would like to see cities do a better job of looking at information they are basing their policies on, making sure it’s accurate. EPS is very popular to ban, but the EPS industry continues to thrive.”
If city or state environmental policies regarding plastics are going to be determined by 8 year olds, then I’m convinced more than ever we in the industry need to get into the schools and begin teaching the science of plastics. We need to educate youngsters about the value of plastic, its benefits over other materials, and why banning plastic can have the unintended consequence of harm from other materials such as paper, which also carries negative environmental impacts.