GreenLaurel: Will Maryland Ban ‘Foam’ Food Containers?

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Avoid using foam cups. Instead of tossing, use foam cups to collect grease and fats when cooking. Fat and grease should never go down any drain (including the toilet!)

A coalition of anti-trash groups and governmental agencies is urging the Maryland General Assembly to consider a bill that would ban the foam. If approved, organizations in Maryland would not be able to package food in foam products, cups, to-go clam shell boxes and trays.

Polystyrene plastic foam is cheap to make and therefore ubiquitous in our world. Food foam has many downsides, and with today’s more eco-friendly and cost-effective options available for our goodies and coffee, it seems time for Maryland to join Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, D.C. and 80 other places around the country that ban it.

One-Time Use for a Lifetime of Litter

Seems a good time to bring Woodsy Owl back to life?

For some crazy reason, some humans are actually litterbugs. Clearly these trashy types were never taught to “give a Hoot and don’t pollute.” When anti-trash heroes like Trash Free Maryland executive director and co-founder Julie Lawson analyze the trash they collect in waterways, 80 percent of what they find is food containers (chip bags, bottles and cans), and 40 percent of the litter is single-use “food foam.”

White foam containers are polystyrene, a plastic made from petroleum products. Though it’s widely known as “Styrofoam,” that is actually Dow Chemical’s trademarked name for the foam plastic. 

“Most people are aware that foam isn’t good and that it’s outdated,” Lawson said. “When we conduct research, some people will even ask us if foam is still in use.”

Food Foam’s Downsides:

  1. It never, ever breaks down.
  2. It’s made from fossil fuels; it’s essentially a puffy plastic.
  3. We’ve known for a long time that when heated, foam food containers leach styrene.
  4. It accounts for about one quarter of litter.
  5. If it breaks down in waterways, food foam acts as a sponge, soaking in toxins and grime.
  6. Animals and fish eat the toxin-soaked foam bits. Humans eat the fish. 
  7. Though food foam has a #6 plastic recycling code, it’s a no-go in curbside programs.
  8. It’s tacky — you know it is.

Food Foam’s Upsides:

  1. It’s cheap to use.
  2. It’s big business at $9 billion in yearly revenue, though the sector isn’t growing.
  3. Three firms — Dart, Reynolds and Dow Chemical — together account for 30 percent market share.

‘Ban the Foam’ Bill

Baltimore Del. Brooke Leirman, representing Canton, sponsored HB 229 that would prohibit the sale of food service foam products as well as those annoying packing peanuts.Montgomery County Sen. Cheryl Kagan crossfiled SB 186 in the Senate.

If approved and signed, Maryland’s food businesses would have to swap out foam cups, trays and boxes with paper products. Paper does break down in waterways. 

If you want to share your thoughts on food foam with your state legislators, click here

Recycling Food Foam?

Proponents of food foam are manufacturers and distributors. In addition to wanting to continue their ongoing sales and profit streams, these businesses contend on their website that using foam “helps schools, businesses, government agencies and consumers in the Mid-Atlantic region save millions of dollars each year.”

That argument isn’t really true when cost-effective paper alternatives exist. Plus, it disregards the money spent on litter pickup, potential health impacts and harm to animals and fish. Maybe the industry can become part of the solution instead of covering our planet with single-use, cheap and tacky foam.

Restauranteurs and regular people alike can recycle clean, unstained food foam at the Northwest Citizen Convenience Center on Sisson Street and 29th in Baltimore City. Packing peanuts are not accepted.

Fun Factoid: You can recycle oyster shells, too!

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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