BALTIMORE - As the coronavirus pandemic continues to shift much restaurant dining from eat-in to takeout, Maryland next week becomes the first state in the nation to ban the familiar foam containers used to carry home everything from crab cakes to curries.
A state law that goes into effect Oct. 1 prohibits restaurants, schools and other food service outlets from using polystyrene containers, more commonly and erroneously known as Styrofoam. The law originally was scheduled to take effect July 1, but because of pandemic-related shutdowns, state officials allowed more time for affected businesses to use remaining stock.
The new law comes at a time when restaurants are using veritable mountains of disposables - for takeout, but also to follow federal health recommendations that they give even dine-in customers single-use plates and utensils.
As a result, trash collection has swelled across America, rising 22% in Baltimore at the height of the pandemic.
While environmentalists say that makes the ban even more critical, many restaurants decry the added expense of shifting to more costly alternatives to foam. Already, they say, dining restrictions have drastically cut their business, and looming ahead Jan. 1 is a 60-cent increase in the hourly minimum wage.
"The restaurant industry has just taken it on the chin with the coronavirus," said John Leonard, whose Baltimore-based wholesale supply business has been helping area restaurants transition from foam. "They're struggling to stay afloat."
But environmentalists say the new law will have long-term benefits, removing a material made with fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change, and that clogs landfills, pollutes the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways and ultimately harms wildlife, people and the planet.
Ben Grumbles, Maryland's environment secretary, said that by prohibiting polystyrene and embracing more sustainable materials, the state will serve as a model for other jurisdictions with similar bans in the pipeline.
"We will learn how best to implement it," Grumbles said, "and other states will watch us closely."
Maine, New York and Vermont have passed bans on polystyrene food containers, although none have yet taken effect. Other states are weighing similar legislation.