MINISTER DUANE WILLIAMS, JR: Baltimore’s Baffling Ban Makes Take-Out Containers Criminal

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I'm from Baltimore. I'm a former Baltimore City Police Officer and currently an educator at a Baltimore City Public School, and for as long as I can remember, Baltimore has had a littering problem. In a single day, our famous Mr. Trash Wheel has collected as much as 38,000 pounds of trash from the Jones Falls Watershed. Instead of additional recycling and clean up efforts to combat this growing problem, especially in some of our most neglected neighbornoods, the Baltimore City Council has proposed a foam food container ban that brings with it a criminal penalty for restaurant owners who don’t comply. This legislation comes as the homicide rate in Baltimore continues to surge to an all-time high and the city continues to struggle to attract new residents. The city council must get their priorities straight: instead of adding costly and unnecessary criminal legislation to the books, it should focus on the real issues that matter to Baltimore.

The City of Baltimore should be doing everything it can to fix its problems, from relatively trivial issues like littering, to those most serious for our future. This includes rebuilding trust with minority communities, attracting new families and businesses, and forcefully addressing police brutality. A ban on foam containers, which many in Baltimore’s restaurant community, healthcare providers, and poorest residents oppose, is the wrong way to address these problems.

So, what is being banned? The city council voted to move forward with a bill to ban the use of food and drink containers made of polystyrene foam (what many know as Styrofoam) by all food service providers. The ban would be one of the harshest in the nation. In addition to making the use of foam containers a crime, there are zero exceptions for financial hardship, healthcare facilities, or service organizations such as Meals on Wheels.

Foam is an effective insulator and less expensive than other food packaging. This is especially important for local “mom and pop” restaurants, where profit margins are razor thin. Forcing them to pay more for packaging takes away money that could otherwise go to wages for their employees or to keep costs low for their customers. Minority-owned restaurants, along with food trucks are often the most reliant on take-out services and forcing them to use far more expensive containers could destroy their businesses.

In the past, even Baltimore City Council President Jack Young called foam container bans “anti-business” and has opposed the ban.

Speaking in an interview in support of the ban, Councilman John Bullock talked about the containers getting into the waterways, but then the video shows him taking a swig of water from a single-use plastic water bottle! The same type of water bottle that clogs up Baltimore’s waterways. I am sure that Councilman Bullock responsibly recycled his water bottle when he was finished with it, but that is exactly the point. Foam containers are also recyclable and rather than banning a product that so many small businesses in Baltimore count on, the city council should make recycling easier by encouraging recycling and eliminating littering through education, littering fines, municipal stormwater capture programs, and readily available public waste disposal options.

Don’t let the city council tell you that recycling is too hard, or that anti-littering campaigns are too expensive. Polystyrene items can be recycled and sold to companies that will turn the recycled plastic into picture frames, pens, and rulers. San Diego allows foam container recycling in its curbside program and the cost is covered by the amount it makes on other recycled items.

There is no excuse for a city that has paid nearly $12 million in settlements, judgements, and legal fees from over 100 instances of police brutality in the last five years to not be able to find the money to implement a curbside foam recycling program and an aggressive anti-littering campaign.

Baltimore is dealing with serious issues. ABC News stated that “Baltimore is the heroin capital of the United States.” Mayor Pugh said her administration is focused on reducing crime, boosting police recruits, and improving long-neglected neighborhoods. These are important goals and the city council should support them. Instead, they are focusing on a trivial issue to score political points that will ultimately hurt small businesses, raise prices for meals, and create more problems than they solve. Our city is at a major turning point and we need our leaders to focus on the right things. A ban that will hurt the community through unnecessary criminal legislation is a big step in the wrong direction.

- Minister Duane Williams, Jr.
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