OCEAN CITY – County officials are relying on education and voluntary compliance as part of a new ban on foam food service products.
On Wednesday, Worcester County Environmental Programs Director Bob Mitchell briefed the Ocean City Coastal Resources Legislative Committee (Green Team) on efforts to enforce the new polystyrene ban.
“Locally, we haven’t seen one complaint, nor has the health department or environmental programs received complaints about our commercial facilities using this stuff,” he said. “I’ve been looking but I haven’t seen too much of it in my travels. Everybody is starting to make the switch.”
In March of 2019, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill to ban expanded polystyrene (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.
The ban, which was slated to begin on July 1, was delayed earlier this summer as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But on Oct. 1, Maryland became the first state to ban the use of EPS food service products.
“There are four other states that have since passed it, but they haven’t taken effect yet,” Mitchell said this week. “So we are the guinea pig. They are looking to us and seeing what kind of kinks are being worked out.”
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.
For his part, Mitchell said his department has worked alongside businesses to garner voluntary compliance. He said restaurants found using polystyrene products are given a three-month grace period.
“Our local food operators are suffering through this pandemic,” he said. “Enforcement is really going to be voluntary compliance and education.”
As part of the ban, MDE can also grant a one-year waiver to food service businesses or schools if the department determines compliance would present an undue hardship or practical difficulty.
Mitchell said the polystyrene ban has hit nonprofits particularly hard. And while some businesses and organizations have sought waivers, none have been granted.
“The state has gotten 54 requests for waivers, and they haven’t granted any of them …,” he said. “We’re getting Meals on Wheels getting turned down.”
The Hobbit Restaurant owner Garvey Heiderman questioned that decision.
“Obviously we don’t want to encourage single use, but it’s basically single use versus no use,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to not grant this waiver from a waste standpoint.”
Mitchell said the county has relayed its concerns to the Eastern Shore delegation. But he also noted the benefits of the new polystyrene ban.
“It will make a difference eventually when it’s fully implemented,” he said. “It’s good stuff.”
There are some notable exclusions in the legislation. The law would not apply to pre-packaged foods 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.