City bill aims to ban use of foam

Councilman to propose fining eateries that use material in containers


At Faidley's Seafood, folks eat their crab cakes hunched over one of the Lexington Market counters, but if they want them to go, the famous Baltimore eatery will tuck them into a white plastic foam container.

Unless one city councilman has his way.

Councilman James B. Kraft is introducing legislation today that would ban city restaurants from using foam. No cups, no plates, no takeout boxes. Nothing made from polystyrene, which environmentalists have frowned upon for not being biodegradable and which Kraft blames for dirtying the Inner Harbor.

Nancy Faidley Devine, owner of Faidley's, finds the proposal to be, in a word, "stupid." Her restaurant uses foam plates, to-go boxes, cups and soup containers. Cheap and insulating, she says the material makes the "ideal container."

"The thing of it is, what are they gonna do to replace it?" she says. "All of the takeout places use that. It's one thing to ban something, but they have to come up with something else we can use."

"Who's this `they' you're talking about?" her husband, Bill, interrupts. "Politicians? They aren't going to do it."

Kraft's bill does not suggest a replacement for plastic foam. But it would tag violators with a $200 fine.

A few other cities ban foam containers, including Berkeley, Calif., and Portland, Ore. McDonald's made headlines years ago by bowing to criticism and trading foam burger boxes for paper wrapping.

Kraft says those West Coast cities don't hold any patents on "clean" and "green."

"There's no reason a major industrial city can't evolve into that," Kraft says. "McDonald's has done this. Burger King has done this. Environmentally responsible businesses have addressed this some time ago. There's no reason why others can't follow suit."

Halle Van derGaag, executive director of the Jones Falls Watershed Association, which promotes clean waterways, applauds the idea.

"That would be a fabulous bill, great for water quality," she says.

When groups comb through Baltimore streams and creeks for trash, soda bottles and cans are by far the most common trash they find, Van derGaag says. But she's seen plenty of foam cups, too.

At OK Natural in Mount Vernon, a little grocery where many of the customers care about packaging and how food containers are recycled, manager Debbie Snively likes the idea of the bill but wonders about its chances.

"I think it's a good idea, but I don't know if it will really pass because I know it keeps people's beverages cold."

At Lexington Market, foam is everywhere.

It's stacked up at Krause's Lite Fare. Cups are waiting near the lemonade and punch machine at Mt. Olympus. And at Chinese Savouries, workers heap portions of lo mein and fried rice into foam trays.

Ronald Kimball of Northwest Baltimore is leaning against the wall at the market, scraping chocolate ice cream with a plastic spoon from a foam cup. Asked if he thought banning foam containers was a reasonable idea, he shoots a you-gotta-be-kidding-me look.

"First of all, they're convenient," he says. Second, he doesn't want to have the cost of a more expensive container tacked on to his ice cream - or whatever he buys to eat. "It isn't going to hold any more. To me, there's no real advantage to it."

The Restaurant Association of Maryland, an advocacy group that has managed to ward off a ban on smoking in restaurants for years, doesn't like the sound of the plastic foam prohibition.

"We're concerned when public officials look to business to solve social problems," says Melvin Thompson, the group's vice president of government relations. "We hope to work very closely [with Kraft] to resolve the littering issues while minimizing the impact to restaurants in Baltimore City."

Kraft counters: "This isn't the smoking bill. They're not going to lose customers because they can't have a Styrofoam container. It's not going to affect costs that much."

John Walterhoefer, the owner of HC Walterhoefer, a South Baltimore paper company, thinks forcing restaurants to buy packaging other than foam will add up to quite a bit of money.

He sells a box of 500 32-ounce foam cups for $30. In plastic, those same 500 cups cost $70, he says.

"It's a terrible, terrible idea," Walterhoefer says. Kraft is "not realistic. He needs to get down here and look around. We've got the gas prices through the roof. We've got taxes outrageously high in the city, and now you want to throw out foam? It's not very pro-business."

At places like Lexington Market, where it's all about big portions of cheap food, Walterhoefer thinks vendors will have to - as Kimball fears - pass the costs on to customers.

Young Hwang, manager of Super Fried Chicken, says he'll do whatever he has to do.

"If we have to change it, we will," he says. "I want to follow the law."

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