The Montgomery County, Maryland Councilmembers may soon find themselves voting on an unnecessary bill that that could mean new economic hardships for the small businesses they represent. During a hearing scheduled for October 30, councilmembers will review a bill meant to ban the polystyrene foam products commonly used by restaurants and take-away eateries.1 Polystyrene foam, which is often mistakenly referred to as Styrofoam®, a registered trademark of the Dow Chemical Company, makes up several forms of single-use foodservice products. These items, such as hot beverage cups and take-away food containers, are safe, cost-effective and provide several amenities which both consumers and vendors prefer over products made out of alternative materials, such as paper.
It’s a common misconception that banning polystyrene foam will reduce the amount of litter or waste within a specific area. The bill being introduced to the Montgomery County Council likely has the intention to do just that, however, it is a flawed approach. Replacing one type of litter with another will do nothing to reduce the amount of waste sent to area landfills, but simply replace one type of trash for another. The Baltimore City Council recently discussed this issue and chose to delay voting on a ban in order to consider other methods preventing litter. According to Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, “We have to change the habits of people, and let people know you do not throw these things in the gutter or in the sewers. You put them in the trash cans or you recycle. We cannot ban our way out of bad habits.”2 Another reason the Baltimore City Council decided to put a halt on their vote is the likelihood that, once implemented, a foam ban would cause further economic burden on small businesses already struggling to stay afloat. According to Councilman William H. Cole, replacing polystyrene products with alternatives “could be thousands of dollars a year for a small business that’s already getting hit with stormwater fees and everything else, bottle taxes and the prospect of a bag tax. It’s more than a singular issue.”2
Another misleading statement is that foam products are bad for the environment, especially when compared to alternatives, because they cannot be recycled. The truth is that polystyrene foam can be recycled, while almost all paper beverage products are coated with a polyethylene wax to prevent leaking which, in turn, makes them very difficult to recycle.3 Not only are paper alternatives to foam not a viable option in terms of recycling, but they also require more energy and resources to be produced. Christopher Bonanos of New York magazine comments: “It takes two and a half times as much energy to make a paper cup as it does to make a foam cup; foam cups are also much lighter than paper cups, reducing the amount of fuel needed to ship them.”3 As a result of this required energy, a single paper cup has a higher carbon footprint than a single foam cup. Not only are alternatives products to foam inferior from an environmental perspective, but they often cost nearly double the amount of foam items.3