STEVENSVILLE — The day finally arrived: Oct. 1, 2020. This date signified the long-fought-for Maryland statewide ban on expanded polystyrene food service products, aka Styrofoam. The members of Queen Anne’s County nonprofits, Kent Island Beach Clean-Ups and Plastic Free QAC were rejoicing after this enormous win for the environment. This is a major step in the right direction toward eliminating single-use plastic pollution, organizers said.
The founders of KIBCU and PFQAC spent years attempting to rid their community of single-use pollution.
“Where do I start regarding all the problems with Styrofoam? There are so many,” KIBCU founder Kristin Weed said.
“Many people don’t quite understand how unsustainable Styrofoam really is, and I am not sure if it is fully realized that it can be detrimental to our health too. Yes, it is convenient and keeps our takeout food warm during the drive home, however, it is incredibly damaging to our environment, cannot be easily recycled, and is not economically sustainable,” she continued. “Fortunately, there are several other alternatives to Styrofoam available for businesses to use.”
Bente Cooney, founder of PFQAC, agreed with Weed, stating: “We are delighted with this legislation to ban food service Styrofoam and look forward to finding fewer pieces of broken-down Styrofoam clam-shells and cups in nature which are so detrimental to animals and the quality of our Bay water! Polystyrene has been shown to pose harm to humans and has been linked to cancer as well as reproductive and developmental disorders.”
The members of both organizations can tell you from experience that if you ever attended a trash pickup of any sort, you are guaranteed to find Styrofoam, and a lot of it. The reason for this is that when Styrofoam enters the environment, it is fragile and tends to break into many tiny pieces, making it close to impossible to collect. It does not biodegrade, and once collected, it cannot be recycled or composted, so it heads straight for the landfill where it will live five times longer than all of us, Weed said. “It basically never goes away!”
The chemical makeup of Styrofoam is deadly to the environment and can cause serious harm to people living in communities close to the processing facilities. Without getting too technical, Styrofoam is the common term everyone uses, but that refers to an actual brand name, Weed said. Styrofoam is polystyrene, a type of plastic. The manufacturing process of polystyrene can be harmful to those working in the processing plants, not only because it has been linked to cancer, but it is also known to cause severe irritation to the eyes, upper respiratory tract, and the skin. Long term exposure can and has caused disrupted kidney function, hearing loss and other health issues.
After Styrofoam is produced and then used by a restaurant, the customer cannot recycle it. Try looking up recycling centers in the state of Maryland that accept Styrofoam. You will most likely only come up with three facilities, but there is a catch. You cannot bring any used food service Styrofoam to these facilities, and not all of them even accept unused food service products. The reason why? These facilities will not take used food service items, because, even if you rinse out the containers, you cannot wash out all the food residue from Styrofoam like you can from plastic. Once the food has been sitting in the container, it is useless for recycling. These foam “recycling” facilities only accept large blocks of foam or packing peanuts. How many people do you know who would actually take the time to compile all of their foam and drive a long distance to these facilities that recycle?
Local restaurant owner James Cronin solved this problem by choosing to use eco-friendly food service products instead of using Styrofoam, first at his food trailer, and later at his D’Allesio’s Wood-Fired Pizza restaurant in Stevensville. D’Alessio’s was one of the first, or perhaps the first, in Queen Anne’s County that made the proactive decision to switch to eco-friendly food service products.
“When I decided to open a food trailer in 2013, I saw an opportunity to make a difference by using eco-friendly containers. My wife, parents, business partners and myself decided to use eco-friendly cups made of corn oil instead of using Styrofoam,” Cronin said.
Since opening the restaurant in 2017, he said, “We have now added sugar cane-based take-out containers as well.”
If you have ever been to D’Alessio’s, you have seen these containers firsthand. They keep your food warm, just like Styrofoam, and you can recycle or compost them when you are done using them once you have rinsed out the food residue.
When Weed and Cooney first visited D’Alessio’s and met Cronin, “not only were we pleased to see environmentally friendly products, but we were thrilled that a local business owner made this decision completely on his own,” Weed said, “Our organizations made a point to survey and connect with local restaurants on this issue back in 2019. We immediately began speaking with James to get his take on why he moved away from single-use Styrofoam as well as other single-use plastics.
“What we learned was that James became aware of the problems our environment had been facing with single-use products, and that was all he needed to make that move.”
Cronin told them, “as a 23-year resident of Annapolis and an 18-year resident of Easton, I had always been concerned with the health of the Chesapeake Bay. “
He said that, as a young child crabbing and fishing along the Bay in the early 1980s, he had no concerns of the future water quality, but he has watched the health of the Chesapeake Bay decline.
“While the cost of some of these alternative carry-out products may be more than Styrofoam, the future health of the Chesapeake Bay, our children, and the rest of our area’s children is more important than saving some money on to-go containers,” Cronin said. “While it may be difficult to absorb the financial shock at first, people will appreciate what you’re doing for the environment in the future.”
Weed said, “We have a long way to go. Banning Styrofoam food service products is just scratching the surface. Ideally, it would be nice to get to a place where the standard is not to use something that is easy and cheap, but products that are eco-friendly and affordable, all while protecting our environment.”
“Our hope is that more restaurants in our county will follow James’ example,” said Cooney. “From our restaurant surveys in 2019, we know for a fact that some owners are already making some sustainable choices. It’s a proven fact in the tourism industry, that customers do pay attention and like to support more eco-friendly establishments. Our county would benefit greatly by finding a way to support and give recognition to all restaurants and hotels who are committed to making environmentally sustainable choices.”