Maryland can protect environment without banning styrofoam

Originally published in the Baltimore Business Journal

Carol Park Mar 19, 2019

From mandatory paid sick leave to a proposed $15 minimum wage, Maryland has never been the friendliest state for restaurant owners. Now, Maryland is about to become the first state in the country to ban carryout food containers made from polystyrene, commonly called Styrofoam.


State Senate Bill 285 and House Bill 109, sponsored by Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery) and Del. Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore) respectively, passed both chambers, prohibiting restaurants and cafes from using products made from polystyrene. If Gov. Hogan signs the ban, businesses would have until the end of 2019 to comply.


Bill proponents say the measure is needed to reduce water pollution. In fairness to them, polystyrene does not biodegrade and instead floats in the ocean, where it can be ingested by animals. Of the 3 million tons of polystyrene produced every year in the country, as much as a quarter can end up in the ocean. So policymakers are right to want to do something to protect our environment.


But an outright ban on restaurant use of polystyrene goes too far.


First, it would be a regressive policy. The biodegradable containers that would replace polystyrene cost approximately 2.5 times as much, so the ban would predominantly hurt small restaurant owners who are operating on small profit margins. Such restaurants will either pass the new cost onto their consumers or they’ll try to “swallow” the cost, hurting their viability. A study found that a similar ban in California would cost consumers $376 million a year and reduce that state’s economic activity by approximately $1.4 billion.


Second, the ban would affect just one small source of Maryland’s broad and serious littering problem. Popular polystyrene replacements can also be disposed of carelessly and cause air and water pollution.


Maryland legislators should think about the polystyrene problem as a sustainability challenge and consider investing in long-term solutions. They could work with businesses to find innovative recycling solutions to reduce littering and pollution. Solutions can range from better recycling technology to redesigning the containers so they can be more easily recycled.


However, the first step should be to educate the public about the potential dangers of polystyrene. When educated consumers choose to be more responsible with the containers, businesses will find it in their interest to invest in clever solutions in the name of corporate social responsibility and profitability.


For instance, Chick-fil-A has partnered with special recycling companies to “upcycle” its foam cups. The cups are broken down and condensed into large logs, and turned into benches, pens, and even name badges for Chick-fil-A employees. Walmart’s Canadian division also recycles polystyrene waste to produce commercial insulation products.


Meanwhile, companies like Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s and IKEA have voluntarily committed to ending their use of polystyrene products. In 2018, Starbucks and McDonald's launched a joint three-year public competition to design a fully compostable cup, offering a $1 million prize for the winners.


These examples demonstrate that businesses will do their part to protect the environment. To encourage businesses in Maryland to follow suit, the state should consider incentivizing people through reward programs to find innovative ways to recycle polystyrene or replace it with cost-effective alternatives.


In other states, private companies have already played large roles in fighting polystyrene pollution. For instance, Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation and a private food packing company found ways to make polystyrene recycling more accessible to Rhode Island residents.


According to U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Maryland ranks third in the country in innovation. For a state with such vision, a crude ban on restaurant use of polystyrene is discordant. It would only delay the finding of real solutions to environmental challenges at the expense of Maryland’s restaurant owners and the state’s business competitiveness. 


Carol Park is a senior policy analyst in the Center for Business and Economic Competitiveness at the Maryland Public Policy Institute.