Businesses Adapting To Carryout Container Changes
October 8, 2020
By: Bethany Hooper
Read the full article here.
BERLIN – With Maryland’s ban on foam food service products now in effect, resort and county officials said they were working to ensure all businesses are complying.
On Oct. 1, Maryland became the first state to ban the use of expanded polystyrene (EPS) food service products. The ban, which was slated to begin on July 1, was delayed earlier this summer as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had a lot of people switch over when it was first starting to be talked about, and even before it was introduced in the legislature we had a number of businesses using sustainable containers,” Susan Jones, executive director for the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, said earlier this week. “I would definitely say businesses are ready and well aware of what’s coming.”
In March of 2019, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill to ban EPS food service products, commonly referred to using the brand name Styrofoam. The legislation – aimed at reducing the product’s impact on both the environment and health – largely affects the food service industry and schools in Maryland as it prohibits a food service business or school from selling or providing food and beverages in EPS foam food service products, including bowls, plates, cups and trays, to name a few examples.
“We are looking forward to finally helping address this environmental and public health issue,” state Senator Cheryl Kagan (D-17), co-sponsor of the bill, said in a video message last week, “and working toward removing dangerous items, including single-use plastics.”
Since last year, state and local agencies have made a concerted effort to educate businesses on the ban and alternative food service products.
As part of the legislation, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) has been tasked with conducting outreach about the ban. However, the responsibility of enforcing the ban and assessing noncompliance fines falls to the county departments of health or environmental protection.
In a statement this week, the Worcester County Health Department’s Environmental Health Program said it would work with the county’s environmental programs department and MDE to ensure compliance.
“The Worcester County Health Department is not the delegated authority for the enforcement of the polystyrene ban,” the statement reads. “If we observe facilities with polystyrene, we will inform the owner/management of the ban and then forward the information onto Worcester County’s Environmental Programs/MDE for their follow up.”
Kim Moses, Worcester County’s public information officer, said the goal is to assist the food service industry during this time.
“We understand the financial strain the pandemic has placed on the food service industry, and we will be working with all partners to educate and work with the public to garner voluntary compliance,” she said.
Jones said the foam ban comes with its challenges. As carryout services increase as a result of the pandemic, she said businesses would incur additional costs.
“Clearly, Styrofoam is more cost effective, and we know alternatives are twice or three times the costs and don’t give the performance of Styrofoam,” she said. “But when we talk about sustainability, we understand we have to go in that direction. But nobody likes increased costs.”
Nancy Schwendeman, interim executive director for the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, noted that the chamber was in full support of delaying the ban’s implementing earlier this summer.
“Over the last couple of months, I have seen some (businesses) that had started transitioning, and imagine that each will do the best they can to be in accordance with the ban,” she said. “The chamber was in full support of the delay in implantation of the ban to help our members.”
But Ryan James, owner of Mother’s Cantina in Ocean City, said he has developed a business model that passes the additional costs onto the consumer. In recent years, his restaurant has used alternative, sugarcane-based food containers.
“We switched to all compostable sugarcane,” he said. “Those are an average of seven to 12 cents more expensive per container than Styrofoam. So what we did was when any of our front-of-the-house people hit the to-go modifier we tacked on an 11-cent charge.”
James – who went before Maryland legislators to testify in support of the ban – said he found that being transparent with customers and explaining the added cost makes a difference. He said he’s also offered to help other resort businesses in the switch to alternative products.
“As a consumer, a family of four might only use five Styrofoam boxes a week. However, a restaurant can use 500 to 700 of them a day,” he said. “It really starts with us because the consumer will take the food in whatever we choose to give them. If we give them Styrofoam, they’re going to use Styrofoam.”
Officials noted supply chain interruptions earlier in the year had made it difficult for businesses to secure products. But James said alternative materials are now readily available.
“COVID was a bit of a step back in terms of supply interruptions, especially with the recyclable and compostable materials coming from overseas,” he said. “It was a bit of a setback, but now everything seems to be in place.”
As part of the ban, MDE may grant a one-year waiver to food service businesses or schools if the department determines compliance would present an undue hardship or practical difficulty. Information on the waiver process can be found at mde.maryland.gov.
James also encouraged local businesses to contact Mother’s Cantina with any questions or supplier recommendations.
“Right now these are difficult times for restaurants,” he said. “What we need to do is all stand together and help each other out.”
It should be noted that although foam carryout trays and beverage cups are often referred to as Styrofoam, that terminology is incorrect. Styrofoam is a trademark of the Dow Chemical Company and is generally used in industrial settings. Styrofoam is not used in the food service industry for plates, trays, cups, coolers or packaging materials.
There are some notable exclusions in the legislation. The law would not apply to pre-packaged foods such as soup, for example, that have been filled and sealed prior to the passage of the legislation. In addition, food service businesses and schools in Maryland would be allowed to purchase and distribute products packaged in polystyrene out of state.