Maryland restaurants brace for polystyrene ban to begin Thursday

Owners warn the state's ban may do more harm than good for restaurants struggling during the coronavirus pandemic

Restaurants in Maryland are bracing themselves as the state's polystyrene ban is set to take effect on Thursday.

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Maryland's ban, which passed last March, aims to cut back on the material's harmful impact on the environement and state's waterways and wildlife. The ban includes items such as cups, plates, carryout containers and trays.

The original deadline to stop using the products was July 1, but on June 11, it was pushed back by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Earlier this month, Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan gave restaurants the greenlight to open indoor dining at up to 75% capacity with strict social distancing and public health measures in place.

However, some in the industry are worried that despite the increased capacity, initiating the ban during the pandemic may do more harm for struggling restaurants in the state than good.

“It just really isn’t the right time to be doing this in the middle of a global pandemic,” Maryland Retailer Association president Cailey Locklair told FOX 5 Baltimore.

She notes that the pandemic has led to major supply chain issues.

“You have facilities across the United States and globally that have been shut down," Locklair told the outlet. "They are not manufacturing in the way that they were before. We all understand basic economics. When supply is low and demand is higher that increases prices."

Locklair also argues the state should be more focused on recycling rather than banning them and pushing people towards more expensive options.

“We should be focused on recycling products, not banning them and pushing people toward more expensive, worse products quite frankly,” Locklair said. “Consumers can still go online and buy these items. So if somebody wants to have polystyrene x,y, or z, they can easily just pop online and buy it. The legislation did nothing to regulate that at all. That’s just a problem that we’re seeing more and more -- is pushing these transactions away from brick and mortar and then consumers can still go and buy them."

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Critics of the new rule argue that the costs associated with the move are too high for many struggling restaurants to handle.

For instance, G&M Restaurant general manager Dimitri Leromonahos noted that finding an alternative has been at least three times more expensive.

"We used to get a box of 200 for $12 or $13 with our name on it and everything," Leromonahos told FOX5. "Now these plastic ones start at $40 or $45 for a box of 150.”

As a result, restaurant owners like Dan Schuman, of Captain Dan's Crabhouse in Eldersburg, told the Associated Press that he will raise his prices in order to cover the costs of switching from foam to plastic containers for takeout orders.

“We don’t like increased costs,” Schuman said. “No restaurant does. Because we have to pass that onto the customer.”

fiscal impact study conducted in 2017, before the ban was officially passed, estimated that the minimum financial impact for Maryland could be roughly $41 million dollars, with affected businesses, organizations and consumers in the state estimated to spend an additional $34.9 million annually to replace the restricted products.

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In addition to the high costs associated with the move, the American Chemistry Council, who opposed the ban when it was passed, warned in a statement back in in March 2019 that the environmental impact of polystyrene is not as severe as other alternatives.

"Polystyrene foam packaging and containers provide business owners and consumers with a cost-effective and environmentally preferable choice that is ideal for protecting food and preventing food waste, particularly when used for foodservice," the organization said. "Foam packaging is generally more than 90 percent air and has a lighter environmental impact than alternatives."

The council added that the move could lead to "increased solid waste, energy use, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions."

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Along with restaurants, schools and other food servers could potentially face a penalty of up to $250. The legislation states that the fines, used for compliance, will be placed on any person or food service business that violates the law and does not correct the issue within three months after receiving a written warning.

Ben Grumbles, the state’s environment secretary, said Maryland’s law will serve as a model.

“We will learn how best to implement it,” Grumbles told AP, “and other states will watch us closely.”

According to the state, the rule will be enforced by each county's local health department. Some schools and food service businesses may be eligible for a discretionary waiver for up to one year if the local health department determines that achieving compliance would present an undue hardship or practical difficulty.

In order to request a waiver, a written request, by email or letter, should be sent to Maryland's Department of the Environment explaining why compliance with the ban would pose an undue hardship or practical difficulty not generally applicable to other food service businesses or schools in similar circumstances.

The statewide ban comes after many Maryland counties have already adopted the ban on polystyrene foam containers. Other states that have passed similar bans include New York, Maine and Vermont, among others. However, none of those measures have officially taken effect.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report