Maryland Ban on Foam Food Containers Takes Effect, Squeezing Restaurants

A new Maryland law took effect Thursday banning the use of foam containers commonly used by restaurants for takeout purposes, even as the industry struggles during the coronavirus pandemic.

The ban on polystyrene — the official name for the type of material commonly used for food service — was originally supposed to take effect on July 1 after it was passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 2019. The Maryland Department of the Environment, however, delayed implementation of the law in part until Oct. 1 due to the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to WTOP. The ban on the sale of foam containers still took effect on July 1, but restaurants were allowed to use their backlog of the product until October.

The bill became a law without the signature of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, according to The Associated Press. Hogan’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

[READ: States’ Climate Change Efforts Stall During Pandemic]

Maryland is not the first state to pass such a ban. Other states began outlawing the sale and use of plastic bags and foam containers in recent years, but some also delayed implementation because of the ongoing crisis. Maine enacted a law banning the sale and distribution of “disposable food service containers composed in whole or in part of polystyrene foam” starting in January. But Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, worked with the state legislature to enact an emergency measure delaying Maine’s ban of single-use plastic bags until Jan. 15, 2021.

Vermont pushed forward with its own ban of plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers and polystyrene containers, which took effect on July 1. Julie Moore, secretary of the state’s Agency of Natural Resources, told the Burlington Free Press that there was no need to postpone the prohibition of plastic bags because reusable bags could be used safely even amid the pandemic.

Some Maryland restaurateurs and industry advocates are concerned about how the state’s new foam container ban will impact the already-squeezed industry.

“In my opinion, you could give us a break here,” says Gary Teegardin, owner of Duesenberg’s American Café and Grill in Catonsville, Maryland. “Restaurants are going out of business left and right. I mean, literally left and right.”

Teegardin says that the ban just puts “another burden” on small businesses like his, noting that he recently spent around $800 or $900 on paper goods to replace his restaurant’s foam containers, which he says normally would cost around $200. He also says that even as Maryland has begun relaxing social distancing restrictions on restaurants, “people are still doing more carryout than they’re sitting in.”

“Restaurants that use polystyrene foam do so because it is a durable and cost-effective product for maintaining food temperature and quality,” Melvin Thompson, senior vice president of government affairs and public policy at the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said in an email. “Alternatives are twice to triple the cost and do not generally provide the same performance. The foam ban will increase the cost of foodservice disposables during a time when many restaurants are struggling to survive.”

But Maryland Delegate Brooke Lierman, a Democrat who sponsored the House bill in 2019, told The Baltimore Sun that the public is demanding environmentally friendly laws like this one.

“There’s really a steadily growing awareness of the real and present harm single-use plastics cause,” Lierman told The Sun. “Businesses and Marylanders are even more alarmed by this, and really looking to government to come up with solutions for this waste.”

[MORE: California, Michigan Take Action Against Climate Change]

Teegardin says he understands the impact of these products, calling himself a “firm believer in environmental issues.” But he notes that his business is down about 60% because of the pandemic, and says he wishes the government would have delayed the ban for another six months or a year.

“Instead, they put the burden right back on the little small business guys, as always, who pay the fair share of everything,” Teegardin says. “And it is totally unfair to the restaurant business. And it only affects — think about it — only affects the restaurant business.”

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