Foam packaging along the Potomac River. Photo by Cheryl Williams, Surfrider Foundation

The DC Council could vote to ban foam food containers on Monday. The plastics industry is hoping otherwise.

The plastics lobby descended on the Wilson building this week to make a last-ditch push to block a proposed polystyrene ban, up for a final vote on Monday. The bill passed the council unanimously on June 24.

Led by Dart Container and the American Chemistry Council, the industry lobbyists want to delay the ban until more study is done on trash in the Anacostia River, even though research has been ongoing for more than five years.

The Anacostia Watershed Society has been tracking material caught in Nash Run, near the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, since 2009. By volume, foam is typically about a quarter of the floatable trash they capture.




Trash, by volume, collected from the Nash Run Trash Trap. Image from the Anacostia Watershed Society.


The proposed ban is part of Mayor Vincent Gray’s Sustainable DC plan, and is included along with ten other measures in the Sustainable DC Omnibus Act of 2013. The ban would cover expanded polystyrene foam food containers like cups, clamshells, and plates that you might get at fast food or carryout restaurants.

While it doesn’t take effect until 2016, the District is already preparing to support businesses with a list of vendors of alternative materials, and coordinating cooperative buying arrangements to help lower costs. Many small businesses already use compostable or recyclable packaging, knowing that their customers prefer sustainable alternatives.

Polystyrene foam bans are already in place in more than 100 cities around the country, in response to research on plastic pollution in the oceans and persistent litter in neighborhoods. Even Congress tried to get rid of polystyrene in its cafeterias under former Speaker (now Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi’s watch. DC would be the first in the region to pass such a ban, though Baltimore has been debating one for several years.

As plastics go, polystyrene is one of the worst. Styrene itself is a possible carcinogen, with a risk of transfer particularly via hot foods. Once in the water, polystyrene behaves like all other petrochemicals and absorbs fertilizers and pesticides, but at ten times the rate of other types of plastic. If a fish eats those tiny pieces—or a volunteer picks it up at a river cleanup—it can be exposed to toxic chemicals.

The bill is on the agenda for Monday’s legislative meeting. For more information, and to contact your councilmember, see banthefoam.org.

Julie Lawson is director of Trash Free Maryland, a nonprofit creating lasting change to prevent trash pollution. She previously worked for the Anacostia Watershed Society, volunteered with the Surfrider Foundation, and was principal at Communication Visual, a design studio for nonprofit organizations. She lives in Takoma DC with her son Owen.