By Andrea Herb
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
A student-run group in Baltimore was influential in pushing the City Council to approve a ban on the polystyrene foam containers used for carryout food and drinks from restaurants.
Baltimore Beyond Plastic, which was founded by 17-year-old Claire Wayner and Mercedes Thompson of Baltimore Polytechnic, is an organization run by students independently of Baltimore’s high schools.
The team advocates for environmental causes such as the plastic foam ban. It also empowers high school students to get involved in the political process.
The ban, passed on Feb. 26, prevents food service facilities from using “any disposable food service ware that is made from polystyrene foam.” Similar bills had been proposed in 2006, 2008, and 2012, but were not passed, according to the Baltimore Brew.
Plastic foam, more commonly known by the brand name Styrofoam, is commonly used in disposable trays in the food industry. While it is recyclable, the process for recycling it is complicated, leading most people to throw it into the regular trash, Thompson said.
She said this poses an issue when it winds up in Maryland’s waterways, where it breaks down and releases toxins into the water. In addition, plastic foam releases toxic chemicals into the air when it is burned — and Baltimore burns 70 percent of its trash, Thompson said.
The team first formed in December 2016 when Wayner and Thompson were interning at the Baltimore Office of Sustainability.
They said they heard about the plastic foam ban but couldn’t do anything through the office because city agencies cannot take positions on legislation. The two then came up with the idea to make their own organization and created Baltimore Beyond Plastic.
“We realized that this is a tangible way to reduce the plastic we were seeing,” Wayner said.
The work of Baltimore Beyond Plastic is twofold. In addition to raising awareness for the effects of plastic foam products on the environment, the group also works to give high schoolers a voice in these issues, said Dennis Gong, 18, the team’s small business and community outreach leader.
“Part of our mission is to connect students with policy,” said Gong, who attends Baltimore Polytechnic. “A really important goal is to get students involved so they can be part of the legislative process.”
Gong said this mission has proved to be a success so far, citing City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s statement that the efforts of students had swayed him to support the ban.
“They were not coached by adults, and that really touched me — that they could advocate for a ban on something they believe was very toxic and dangerous for their environment,” Young said during the City Council hearing for the ban on Feb. 6. “Those kids convinced me. I asked them questions, and they came back with tough answers.”
Gong said that these statements are referring to Baltimore Beyond Plastic, which held a rally at City Hall on the night of the hearing. Over 200 students and teachers from 17 schools attended, according to the group’s website.
“I think our most important contribution to the community has been us giving the youth a voice,” said Allie Grayson, 17, of Baltimore City College, who works with art advocacy efforts. “Our work has done a lot to make students feel empowered.”
Nicholas Kophengnayong, 16, a student at Baltimore Polytechnic, said the organization has given him opportunities that he would not have had otherwise. He said he joined Baltimore Beyond Plastics as a result of his involvement with the “Green Team” in elementary school.
“I’ve been able to contact legislators. This year my main focus was working with small business and community organizations,” Kophengnavong said.
The team members say they are not planning to continue their involvement with the organization when they move on to college. Instead, they said they are looking to the next generation of high schoolers to lead the program into the future.
Wayner invites any environmentally-conscious high schoolers to join the team by going to the group’s website, bmorebeyondplastic.org.