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Maryland lawmakers consider plastic foam ban in restaurants, schools

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland could be the first state to ban foam food containers statewide, but it would mean taking legislation where it's never gone before.

For the third straight year, the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on a bill that would ban the use of foam food containers. Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery) is again sponsoring the bill, SB 285, to create a unified ban of the product.

"It takes up room in our landfill, it breaks down and does not biodegrade, it ends up littering the side of our streets, it ends up in our waterways, the fish eat it and then we eat the fish. Single-use foam [containers] are up to 40 percent of the volume of our litter," Kagan said at the bill hearing on Tuesday.

Food service businesses would have until Jan. 1, 2020, to transition to non-foam containers, though a one-year waiver may be available to businesses that would experience "undue hardship" from the ban. More than half of the state's population lives in a county or city that has implemented, or has pending, restrictions on foam packaging in food service, she said.

The bill would ban plastic foam food containers — often referred to as Styrofoam, which is a trademark name often misused to describe disposable containers that carry food from restaurants, fast-food places, cafes, delicatessens, coffee shops, supermarkets, food trucks, institutional cafeterias and others.

The Tasting Room in downtown Frederick uses plastic containers for the majority of its food, if it's being carried out of the restaurant. However, the one item it does put into a foam container is soup, said General Manager David Campbell.

The soup is made from scratch in the restaurant each day, and it is packaged to order in the kitchen. A loophole in the bill allows pre-packaged soup and other foods sealed in plastic foam outside the state to be exempt from the ban. The Tasting Room would not qualify for this exception.

The restaurant has not looked into any alternative containers, but it would have to if the bill progressed through the General Assembly, Campbell said. Similar bills submitted in both chambers in 2017 and 2018 never made it out of committee.

Still there has been movement in Maryland and Washington, D.C., away from plastic foam products.

Montgomery County banned plastic foam in food service and as loose packaging starting in January 2016. The following July, Prince George's County followed suit, banning plastic foam for the same uses.

Washington, D.C., also banned plastic foam food containers in 2016 and recently began enforcing a ban on single-use plastic straws at local eateries. These changes have largely been directed at the food industry, even though foam products are used and sold in other industries.

"I don't know if it's needed in the food industry as much as it's needed [to be recognized] as a global issue polluting our landfills," Campbell said.

Kagan's bill proposes that the ban would be overseen by the Maryland Department of the Environment but enforced locally by each county. The counties would each set a fine of no more than $250 and be in charge of enforcing the ban through its health department. Frederick County Sen. Ron Young (D) is a co-sponsor of the ban.

One of the reasons the food industry may be targeted to be the first to stop using a product is because it is the largest user of these single-use products, Campbell said. But he declined to speculate on why lawmakers were considering a ban on plastic foam now.

Baltimore City will stop the use of plastic foam food service products in its school's cafeterias in October. The bill would expand on this action by also banning the use of plastic foam trays in all schools and higher education institutions statewide.

Frederick County Public Schools currently buys five-compartment foam trays to serve food in the majority of its cafeterias, said Steve O'Brey, procurement coordinator for the school system's Office of Food and Nutrition Services. He has begun looking at alternative products; however, initial estimates show a $50,000 annual increase in cost.

FCPS is trying to be proactive in finding a new product to replace its foam trays, since it appears a ban on plastic foam products is the direction the state is headed, O'Brey said.

"We know it's probably going to come down the pipe in the next few years," O'Brey said.

There are a few paths that FCPS could take to replace its foam trays.

Approximately 90 percent of the county's elementary schools and four middle schools currently have reusable plastic trays, but not all the schools have a dishwashing machine to accommodate this change and other school systems have struggled with high school students throwing reusable trays in the trash, said Robert Kelly, senior manager of food and nutrition services at FCPS.

"Who's going to be pulling those out of the trash?" Kelly asked hypothetically.

Another possible alternative to foam trays is a compostable paper tray, which FCPS successfully piloted in Middletown High School during the 2018-2019 school year. However, the tray is three times the cost of the foam tray and would be cost-prohibitive to put in the 10 other high school cafeterias, Kelly said.

FCPS's overall food service operating budget is $12.9 million, and the $50,000 increase to change the trays would account for less than half of 1 percent of the total budget.

Kelly cautioned, however, that the $12.9 million included much more than just food. FCPS is self-sustaining and its food service budget includes labor and benefits for its 340 employees as well as equipment, repairs, computers, pens and pencils on top of food.

On average, FCPS serves 7,000 breakfasts and 13,000 lunches daily at its schools.

"Compared to the $12.9 [million], it's a small number, but there's a lot of other numbers that factor into this," Kelly said.

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