After a five month long process that started in September 2017, a bill proposing a ban on polystyrene foam (Styrofoam) products in the food service industry received a City Council hearing on Tuesday, February 6. City Council voted unanimously to send the bill to Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh’s desk for approval.
Baltimore Beyond Plastic (BBP), an environmental action group, was founded in December 2016 by local high school students Claire Wayner and Mercedes Thompson. BBP worked with several other environmental advocacy groups, including Hopkins Students for Environmental Action (SEA), to gather support for the ban and bring the bill to City Council.
Although some believe banning polystyrene products would be a financial burden for local businesses, many agree that Styrofoam has a negative impact on environmental and human health. Wayner, who is now a visiting undergraduate student at Hopkins, emphasized the importance of student and youth action.
“We had noticed all the plastic pollution around Baltimore, especially in the Inner Harbor,” she said. “We wanted to figure out a way to address that, and we also noticed that other cities were taking action by banning plastic bags, doing policy work or passing laws.”
Around 200 students from Baltimore City schools attended Tuesday’s hearing. BBP member Dennis Gong talked about the significance of mobilizing students throughout the process.
“Galvanizing the student support behind the bill and getting students involved in policy and politics is a big reason why we’ve had success with this bill and why we’re going to have the momentum to get it through,” he said.
Baltimore physician Dr. Richard Bruno, who received his Master’s at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, talked about the impact of polystyrene foam on Baltimore City, particularly in bodies of water.
“There’s 420,000 polystyrene containers that have been collected in the Jones Falls Water Wheel in the past couple of years,” he said. “That’s one for every adult in Baltimore.”
Gong agreed with Bruno, addressing the non-biodegradable nature of polystyrene. He said that he was inspired to get involved with the effort because of the Styrofoam in lunch trays used by Baltimore City Public Schools.
In its initial stages, the bill was sponsored by City Councilman John Bullock, who was, according to Wayner, responsible for a lot of the activism that helped the bill gather support in City Council.
As activism among Baltimore schoolchildren increased, City Council President Bernard ‘Jack’ Young, though initially opposed to the bill, changed his position on it.
Wayner discussed the process of gathering support for the bill during the five months between its initial sponsorship by Bullock and its hearing on Feb. 6.
“In between that time window, we sent a couple groups of students to visit City Hall and talk with their council member, just small visits,” Wayner said. “We heard that those really impressed the Council President and Councilman [Eric] Costello.”
In addition to Baltimore students, SEA members worked with and were trained by BBP to gather support from different members and organizations in the community.
Sophomore SEA member Alex Walinskas addressed SEA’s involvement in the effort to bring the bill to the City Council.
“We have been working with [BBP] to go to different community associations in the city, explain this legislation to them and ask them to support it,” Walinskas said. “This has been a really good opportunity for us to push our activism into the city of Baltimore.”
Additional support for the bill from within the Baltimore community came from other non-profit organizations such as: Blue Water Baltimore; Mr. Trash Wheel; Trash Free Maryland; and Healthy Harbor.
Similar bills to ban polystyrene foam products were proposed in 2006, 2008 and 2012 and failed to pass because of opposition from local businesses and Styrofoam manufacturing companies.
The BBP decided to focus on lobbying local businesses and recognize the impact that the Styrofoam ban may have on them.
Gong’s primary role on the BBP team was to talk to community associations and survey small businesses about how the ban would affect them.
“The advocacy work that I do is collecting letters of support for the bill,” Gong said. “Letters of support from community members and small businesses have a pretty large impact on City Council members.”
Businesses like Ajumma Cuisine on N. Charles Street are concerned with the financial impact of the ban. Ajumma Manager June Ban discussed the possible challenges of having to stop using Styrofoam.
“It might cost more at this point to change into the new system,” Ban said. “If the City offered support for changing food containers to any other substances, that might be a better idea.”
Though he did not oppose the ban, he emphasized the importance of having a longer transition period so restaurants could adjust to using other materials.
Wayner added that BBP pushed for an amendment to the bill that increased its implementation period from 90 days to 18 months.
“We are looking forward to working with the health department and other groups just to make sure that this transition is as equitable as possible,” Wayner said. “The alternative [materials], over time, can drop in price with increased demand.”
Both Wayner and Gong also talked about restaurants that are already in the process of phasing out Styrofoam containers, which would reduce the impact of the ban on their profits.
Tamber’s Carry Out Manager Holly Martin agreed, adding that the ban would not necessarily be inconvenient for them.
“A good chunk of our containers are already paper or plastic. We would just switch out the remainder of our [Styrofoam] containers,” she said.
According to Gong, alternative materials are only two to six cents more expensive than Styrofoam.
“In terms of smaller businesses who have low profit margins, other jurisdictions have implemented hardship waivers that would provide economic aid,” he said.
Bruno said that Styrofoam should have been phased out of commercial use several years ago.
“It’s been 16 years since the initial classification of styrene as a possible human carcinogen,” he said. “The toxin has no place in our body or our schools or our restaurants or our homes.”
Though polystyrene foam recycling facilities do exist, Bruno said that they are not necessarily accessible.
“There’s a few very rare Styrofoam recycling facilities that recycle the big Styrofoam blocks that come in big packages or furniture. But even then, it’s very difficult for people to utilize them,” he said.
In the process of developing the bill, Bruno provided expert testimony last year in the state legislature and said that he was followed by a member of an organization funded by Dow Chemicals, who claimed Bruno’s testimony was false.
“Unfortunately, when you get well-funded, very entrenched moneyed interests on these things, they’re going to do whatever they can to prevent the data from coming to light,” he said.