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Maryland Just Became the First State to Ban Foam Takeout Containers

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Several cities across the U.S. have issued bans on expanded polystyrene foam, an environmentally-unfriendly material often used for food containers — but Maryland just became the first state to ban foam containers statewide.

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Maryland lawmakers first proposed banning polystyrene (more typically but incorrectly referred to as the trademarked name Styrofoam) in 2019, and the ban was set to go into effect on July 1, 2020. However, a few weeks prior, the state decided to postpone the ban due to COVID-19, as reported by CNN. But now, as Marylanders continue to adjust to the “new normal” of the anything-but-normal coronavirus pandemic, the state has given the ban the green light.

As of Oct. 1, 2020, Maryland restaurants can no longer offer foam takeout containers, cups, plates, or trays; additionally, school cafeterias across the state will be required to replace foam crockery with alternate materials, according to The Baltimore Sun.

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There are several exceptions to the new legislation, as detailed by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). Grocery stores will still be permitted to use polystyrene foam packaging for prepared foods, and the state is not instituting any restrictions on foam packing peanuts. Additionally, if a restaurant or school can provide evidence that this ban would “present an undue hardship or a practical difficulty,” the MDE may grant a one-year waiver from the law.

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The law will be enforced by each county’s local health or environmental department, who are expected to respond to a first offense with a written notice; if the offender does not get rid of polystyrene containers within three months, counties will then be permitted to issue a fine up to $250, as per the MDE.

While many restaurants and schools throughout the state will be making major adjustments to comply with the ban, establishments across several Maryland counties have already had polystyrene bans in place for some time, including Montgomery County, Washington County, and Prince George’s County, The Baltimore Sun noted.

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Polystyrene is notoriously difficult to recycle, and for that reason, very few curbside recycling programs accept it. Even though the synthetic material is lightweight, polystyrene is bulkier than other single-use materials, meaning it uses up more landfill space, and it takes an estimated “500 years to forever” to fully break down. Single-use plastic crockery will take just as long — so if Maryland establishments simply swap polystyrene for hard plastic, it’s not that much of an upgrade. However, there’s a chance that plastic will be recycled if placed in a curbside bin; additionally, hard plastic containers can also be reused as home food storage, unlike polystyrene containers, which are truly single-use. 

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Of course, the best substitute for single-use polystyrene takeout containers would be a reusable system, where customers can pay a small deposit for reusable containers and return them after use. Unfortunately, with the hygiene concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, many establishments are favoring disposables right now (even for dining in), even though experts agree that disposables and reusables are equally safe during COVID-19

Perhaps a happy medium for Maryland establishments would be compostable paper-based containers — and ideally, restaurants and cafeterias would offer compost bins to customers, since not everyone has access to composting at home.

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