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Maryland Could Be the First State to Ban Styrofoam Food Containers

The proposed law would prevent food service businesses and schools from providing or selling any foam food containers, plates, cups, trays, or egg cartons.
A food cart worker fills a styrofoam take-out container with food for a customer on December 19th, 2013, in New York City.

Local Styrofoam bans exist in several states, but Maryland would be the first to institute a state-wide ban.

A bill awaiting the governor's signature could make Maryland the first state to ban Styrofoam cups and food containers.

The material is already banned in Maryland's two most populous counties. Currently, a total of 12 states and Washington, D.C., have local bans on these foam food containers. You won't be able to find Styrofoam at restaurants in New York City, Miami Beach, Seattle, Maui County, or Los Angeles County, among many other cities and counties across the country. At least 65 ordinances exist to ban foam containers in California at the local level. Recent efforts in California and Hawaii to ban Styrofoam at the state level failed to pass into law, though lawmakers are pursuing other bills to ban single-use plastics.

Maryland's proposed law would prevent food service businesses and schools from providing or selling any foam food containers, plates, cups, trays, or egg cartons. The ban, which would go into effect on July 1st, 2020, has made it through the state Senate and House of Delegates, leaving it up to Republican Governor Larry Hogan to sign it into law. The Washington Post reported that the bill had enough support in both chambers of the legislature to override a veto, should Hogan choose to issue one. He has not expressed a public stance on the issue.

Though Styrofoam is a brand-name, it's frequently used to describe all expanded polystyrene foam, a type of lightweight plastic that often ends up in waterways. Environmental advocates claim it is a major source of pollution because it floats and tends to break down into smaller and smaller pieces without ever biodegrading, making it difficult to clean up. Additionally, foam absorbs harmful toxins from the water; when marine life mistake small foam pieces for food, these toxins make their way up the food chain to humans, Ashley Van Stone, executive director of the non-profit Trash Free Maryland, told CNN.

"Maryland may be a small state, but we have the chance with this legislation to LEAD the country on eliminating this horrible form of single use plastic from our state," state Delegate Brooke Lierman, the sponsor of the bill, wrote in a Facebook post. "We have a duty to future generations to clean up the mess that has been made—this bill is an important step!"

Small business owners point to the relatively high cost to use more environmentally friendly recyclable or biodegradable materials, and note that such materials may not be sturdy enough to contain hot liquids and sauces.

"In an industry with razor sharp profit margins, these costs will negatively impact Maryland restaurateurs and be passed along to hard working Maryland families," the American Chemistry Council, a trade association for chemical companies, wrote in a statement urging Hogan to veto the bill. The council also contends that foam actually has a lighter environmental impact than alternative packaging options.

Still, advocates maintain that Styrofoam is more harmful to marine life than other types of plastic containers.