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DC authorities are targeting foam as a trash nuisance
<p>DC authorities are targeting foam as a trash nuisance.</p>

Foam ban no fun for DC operators

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Just because a judge nixed New York City’s short-lived foam container ban this fall doesn’t mean restaurant operators elsewhere are off the hook. As of Jan. 1, Washington DC joined San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis and a few smaller cities in forbidding foam takeout packaging. If your town is next, let’s hope its enforcement methods are more fair-minded than DC’s turned out to be.

The New York City ban was meant to address the lack of recyclability of polystyrene foam containers, the ubiquitous containers that have been the de facto restaurant takeout vehicles for decades. The District of Columbia’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) saw it as more of a trash-related issue, causing many problems before foam cups and clamshells made it to a landfill.   

“Foam is easily blown by wind or washed by rain into storm drains and waterbodies,” the DOEE says. “As a result, foam litter is one of the most common types of trash found in the Anacostia River. In addition to being unsightly, toxic chemicals stick to the surface of foam particles. Birds, fish and other wildlife may ingest the foam particles, causing the polystyrene and other toxins to enter the food chain. Once in the food chain, these chemicals may impact human health.”

The remedy was a law that reads this way:

“Effective January 1, 2016, it is illegal for businesses and organizations that serve food to use food service products made of expanded polystyrene, commonly known as foam or Styrofoam. The law applies to any food service products designed for one-time use. These include take-out containers, bowls, plates, trays, cups, and other items.”

(Editor’s note: Dow Chemical makes Styrofoam, which is primarily used as building insulation or as flotation material for docks. It has never been used to manufacture food and beverage containers. If it was, those containers would insulate better and be more moisture-resistant than polystyrene containers, the products which the DOEE and other foam-banning cities mean to target with these regulations.)

The DOEE has given restaurant operators plenty of time to make a switch to recyclable takeout containers before penalties kick in. The regulation was passed by DC Council in June, 2014. Enforcement begins Jan. 1, 2017.

During this lengthy transition period, the DOEE has reached out to restaurants to let them know about the changes that were coming and the possible consequences of ignoring them.

A series of feel-good videos starring actual DC restaurant operators helped spread the word.

Compared to heavy-handed implementation of some other government mandates, this one seemed to be taking a more reasonable approach. However, operators may not like some of the ways this ban will be enforced. 

On aspect encourages social media vigilantes to go online and anonymously report any restaurant using foam containers directly to the DOEE. Another strategy involves “undercover spot checks to ensure no businesses use foam containers.” This level of scrutiny is appropriate for some clandestine activities; it could be overkill for foam containers, whose use is obvious to all.

DC restaurants that continue to use foam takeout materials get off with a warning and are given 30 days to remedy the situation. If they don’t, they’ll be fined $100.

One helpful aspect of the DOEE program is its Foam Container Alternatives Vendor List. All that most restaurant operators care about a recyclable or compostable takeout container is that it costs about the same and performs just as well as the polystyrene version it would replace. DOEE’s vendor list doesn’t answer those questions directly, but does give operators contact information for 70 DC-area distributors that can. Companies ranging from Earth’s Natural Alternative to broadline giant Sysco are on this list, which covers cups, boxes, bowls, hinged lidded containers and other foodservice wares. If nothing else, it’s a handy shopping guide for recyclable and compostable takeout options.

We don’t know how fast or how wide foam container bans will spread. But with takeout becoming a bigger factor for many restaurants, you may wish to see what recyclable and/or compostable containers are available from your current distributor, just in case.

Contact Bob Krummert at [email protected]

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