By Andrea Durán
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
As the Baltimore City Council prepares to vote Monday on a proposed Styrofoam ban for all local food services, residents and business owners are debating whether saving the environment is worth the inconveniences of finding packaging substitutes.
Fiona Huang, the owner of Sushi Ichiban on Putty Hill Avenue, said there would be some financial strains on her business if the ban is approved, but not any hard enough to make her oppose it. Huang said that her restaurant has take-out and delivery and usually uses plastic boxes and cups, as well as paper boxes for her rice as alternatives to plastic foam.
“If the government banned it, I would totally agree with it,” Huang said. “In the meantime, if they could decrease the price of plastic that would help a lot.”
Emeka Ude, 42, of Owings Mills, said he is not against the ban but doesn’t believe the ban will be passed.
“I don’t think they’ll ban it because it’s not a danger to people or their kids,” Ude said.
A Baltimore City Council committee recently agreed to move the bill, known as 17-0117, to the full council for final approval. Styrofoam is the brand name for polystyrene foam food and drink containers. In voting 7-0 to hand off the bill, the committee also voted to extend the phase-in period from 90 days to 18 months for businesses. Any food service or facility violators of the plastic foam ban would face a penalty of up to a $1,000 fine.
Plastic foam has so far been banned in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties and in Washington, D.C.
Councilman John T. Bullock is the lead sponsor of the Baltimore ban. He said he was very confident in its passing. For the bill to be passed, only eight council members need to support it.
“It looks like we’ll have more than that,” said Bullock. “We’ve faced some opposition from producers and restaurants but the majority of people and even some businesses have been really supportive and are willing to make that change.”
Students and faculty from 14 Baltimore schools backing the ban attended committee hearings. Many were members of a youth-led advocacy organization, Baltimore Beyond Plastic.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services added styrene – a key chemical component of plastic foam – to the list of possible carcinogens in 2011. According to studies reported by the National Toxicology Program, more workers exposed to styrene had increased death rates or risks of cancer. The greatest direct exposure to styrene is in cigarette smoke but for the nonsmoking population, the greatest contact with styrene is from environmental contamination, officials said. The study found the chemical in some fish and other aquatic animals, the soil and people’s food through contact with plastic foam.
For many local businesses and restaurants, the debate has been mainly about the environmental benefits versus the economic and other strain on businesses.
A survey conducted by the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore found that of the 56 restaurants in the Inner Harbor area, 63.6 percent were completely foam free and 30.4 percent only used some foam. Some alternatives for Styrofoam packaging, besides plastic, are double-walled paper, recycled plastic, and a foam-like material made of mushrooms, according to the Earth Institute of the University of Colombia.
A price comparisons chart released by Clean Water Action reported one penny as the average cost difference between plastic and plastic foam, based on the unit cost from the same store. However, the same chart found that the cost for a 1,000 container count for a 10 ounce plastic foam cup would cost $20.20, compared with $60.96 for plastic.
Liana Washburn, 32, is a Baltimore City resident who said she supports the ban on plastic foam and replacing it with more biodegradable products.
Teresa Valdivia is the co-owner of a local fast-food restaurant in Montgomery County who said she too supports the ban in Baltimore because of its benefits for the environment despite its costs to small businesses. However, Valdivia noted that the packaging switch may force her to raise her prices on food slightly, possibly hurting her clientele.
“The only thing we need is time to make the changes in order to not harm our clients,” said Valdivia.