Bans as Takoma Park City Policy

Councilmember Jarrett Smith has drafted an ordinance that states, “a store may not distribute plastic disposable carryout bags to a customer at the point of sale.” The proposed ban would not apply to packaging for bulk items, for restaurant carry-out, or certain other uses. It would address environmental and litter concerns.

I asked constituents’ reactions. I got several pro responses and several opposing. Some opponents question the justification for this particular ban, and other think we do too much banning for a small city. One neighbor’s response: “The only ban I would  like to see the City Council approve would be a ban on bans.” Another asked, “what about addressing the tons of plastic and Styrofoam in all the things we buy? From plastic clamshells at Whole Foods to the many square feet of Styrofoam in the new printer we purchased, it makes up a significant percentage of my garbage each week.” That is, there are bigger fish to fry, beyond the city’s reach.

Let’s look at local bans, starting with polystyrene, the material in Styrofoam.

The Young Activist Club celebrates Takoma Park’s polystyrene ban

The city banned polystyrene food-service materials, via the Young Activist Act of 2014 (which I drafted in response to Young Activist Club advocacy), which went into effect July 1. It covers both foam and hard polystyrene food packaging. A Montgomery County polystyrene ban — foam-only but also covering packing “peanuts” — was introduced last year by Councilmember Hans Riemer. It will go into effect January 1, 2016. The ban on “peanuts” will affect local shipping stores, for instance, but of course isn’t going to touch industrial packaging for shipping.

The city included hard polystyrene — items such as Solo cups — because the Young Activist Club made a strong argument about the health repercussions of those materials, in addition to their non-recyclability.

The point about bans is that they change behaviors in ways that reduce environmental harm and health threats. Replacement materials or practices are boosted and eventually you don’t even think about the olds ways. We don’t burn leaves any more nor smoke in restaurants or offices.

Montgomery County banned transfats back in 2007. An article from back then notes “Sara Lee cakes, for example, will be exempt” because they’re produced and packaged outside the county. Fast forward to June 2015: “FDA orders food manufacturers to stop using trans fat within three years,” reports CNN, for the same reasons the county banned them.

Sometimes local actions build into national change.

Back to local: I got take-out last week from a Takoma Park restaurant I’ve been patronizing for over 15 years. They’re still using polystyrene cups, plates, and carry-out containers. They’re aware of the city law but claim they can’t find a supplier of non-polystyrene materials. That’s bogus, and I’ll add that this place’s prices are high enough to cover any added cost. The city has provided information about suppliers; I’ll make sure it gets to the restaurant again. The approach is to educate and facilitate, not to jump to punishment, in order to get to positive change.

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