What the new Styrofoam ban means for DC's environment

On January 1, the District of Columbia said goodbye to foam coffee cups and to-go containers as it joined more than 100 U.S. cities in banning Styrofoam products. The new legislation didn't come as a surprise, as it was passed in 2014 by then-mayor Vincent C. Gray in a part of a series of sustainability initiatives. 

"I know that sounds like a distant goal, an unrealistic goal, but we’re going to make it," Gray said in July 2014. And the city did. In the past week, businesses all over town have distributed biodegradable food packaging to customers, proving an important step toward citywide environmental responsibility.

While the transition is seemingly successful, how will the city keep tabs on the magnitude of businesses now subject to this law? And, assuming each business is loyal to new guidelines, what does this mean for the waste industry and the environment?

Waste Dive caught up with Julia Christian, public information officer for the District’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE), via email to ask about the department's involvement in the city's newest environmentally-friendly endeavor. 

WASTE DIVE: How are you going to truly ensure that businesses are following this ban? What is the penalty if they are caught distributing foam?

JULIA CHRISTIAN: In addition to following up on tips from the public, DOEE inspectors will be conducting random inspections of businesses and organizations on a regular basis, likely visiting several neighborhoods every week.

A first violation typically results in a warning letter (a Notice of Violation) and 30 days to come into compliance. After that, DOEE can issue a Notice of Infraction (NOI), which initially carries a $100 fine per violation. After the first NOI has been adjudicated, the fine amount would double for the second NOI to the same entity. And after the second NOI has been adjudicated, the fine amount would double again. The fine amount can keep doubling, up to the maximum of $800 per violation.

It's noted on your website that businesses or organizations that sell or provide food are subject to the requirements. Are there any organizations or restaurants that are exempt?

CHRISTIAN: While no business or organization is exempt, two product exemptions exist: food or beverages filled and sealed in foam containers before an entity receives them (e.g., foam cartons of eggs packaged outside of the District); and materials used to package raw, uncooked, or butchered meat, fish, poultry, or seafood.

What does the Department recommend for businesses to do with foam that they have leftover from last year and can no longer use?

CHRISTIAN: DOEE has been educating businesses about the requirements of the ban for the last six months. This outreach campaign has included three direct mailings to all regulated businesses, door-to-door canvassing in major commercial corridors throughout the District, advertisements in local newspapers, a social media campaign, and a web page explaining the requirements of the ban. DOEE also partnered with sister agencies, including the Mayor’s Office of Latino Affairs, the Mayor’s Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, and the Department of Health, to conduct additional outreach with their constituents.

In December 2015, DOEE formed a new workgroup, the Small Business and Civic Leaders Environmental Outreach Workgroup (EOW), to bring together stakeholders from the District’s various business and civic communities in order to discuss new environmental programs and regulations, including the foam ban. At this workgroup, DOEE staff sought feedback from the group about this new law and how it will be implemented as well as answered questions. DOEE will continue to hold these stakeholder meetings on a quarterly basis in 2016. Businesses with remaining foam products should return the products to their supplier or transfer the products to a business outside of the District.

As you may know, a similar Styrofoam ban was proposed in NYC, but was eventually shot down because a number of small businesses complained that alternative packaging was too expensive, or that recycling the foam was more effective. Have you been getting the same type of responses? What if businesses cannot afford the (frequently more expensive) alternative?

CHRISTIAN: New York City’s law differs from the District’s ban in two crucial ways: 1. the NYC ban was preconditioned on the unavailability of recycling programs, and 2. the ban itself was created through agency rulemaking and not through a statute passed by the city council. Neither of these is true for the District’s ban. The District’s ban is statutory and is in no way tied to the availability of recycling programs.

While some businesses have reported increased costs for recyclable containers, we do not believe these costs will be overly burdensome on businesses or their customers, especially when the containers are holding a meal that may cost $10 or more. We’ve been working closely with business owners for the last six months to ensure a smooth transition. Several other large cities have implemented similar bans with great success.

Businesses and organizations may be able to save money on compliant food service ware products through cooperative purchasing. Through this purchasing scheme, several businesses or organizations jointly buy a large volume of products from the same distributor. These cooperative purchasing agreements are often facilitated by third parties. 

It is noted that one of the main reasons this ban was put in place is to keep foam out of the Anacostia River. Is the DOEE working on removing the foam that's already there?

Anacostia River

CHRISTIAN: Yes. The District has deployed trash traps throughout the Anacostia watershed, which remove thousands of pounds of trash pollution from the District’s waterways every year. Foam food and beverage containers are consistently one of the most common types of trash pollution found in the watershed. Since foam is lightweight, wind and rain carry it from streets and sidewalks into storm drains, where it flows directly into rivers and streams. Foam litter is especially difficult to remove from the environment because it breaks into small pieces that are difficult to capture and do not decompose. Toxic pollutants readily adhere to these small pieces, which can be ingested by aquatic life, resulting in bioaccumulation of these pollutants up the food chain, posing potential risks to human health and wildlife. 

Did DC ever consider looking into Styrofoam recycling as opposed to a ban?

CHRISTIAN: The District does not operate its own MRF and relies on industry providers in the greater Washington area, which currently do not accept foam for recycling.

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Filed Under: Corporate News Regulation Waste Diversion
Top image credit: DOEE