Greater Greater Washington

The plastics industry says trash is not a problem in the Anacostia River. DC councilmembers disagree.

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


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

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 piecesor a volunteer picks it up at a river cleanupit 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 the Trash Free Maryland Alliance, a network of organizations working to reduce trash pollution through a common policy agenda. 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. 

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Fascinating trap -- it seems to do a good job caatching trash from PG county. Not sure how banning foam in DC would help.

By far the largest offenders are food trucks. I'd start by those and the amount of litter they produce.

by charlie on Jul 11, 2014 11:36 am • linkreport

How about just banning this stuff? Back in the 60's the future was plastics. Now that we know a little bit more about how our ecology works, the future should be bio-degradable.

by Thayer-D on Jul 11, 2014 11:59 am • linkreport

As plastics go, polystyrene is one of the worst. Styrene itself is a possible carcinogen, with a risk of transfer particularly via hot foods.

Not sure why the toxicity of the monomer (styrene) is relevant in the discussion about the polymer, which is very different material.

Other than that, a ban would be fine. But considering that most of the trash in the river is bottles and cans, why not ban those? Or discourage the use some way? How about a 25c deposit per can or bottle?

by Jasper on Jul 11, 2014 12:09 pm • linkreport

"polystyrene behaves like all other petrochemicals and absorbs fertilizers and pesticides"

I understand that this is bad for other living things that come into contact with the toxin-laden styrofoam, but otherwise this seems like a great idea to help pull other dangerous chemicals out of the water!

by Adam L on Jul 11, 2014 12:14 pm • linkreport

+1 Thayer. My one word for Dustin Hoffman would be: bio-degradables.

While banning foam is a start, there really needs to be a cultural change. When I was growing up in Silver Spring/Takoma Park, respect for the environment and the importance of not littering (and proactively cleaning up litter) was something taught over multiple years of elementary school in different ways. I remember when our class did a walk along Sligo Creek to learn about the creek's environment and also pickup litter. Those are the sort of small lessons with an outsized impact on your worldview.

Not sure how other school systems address environmental education.

by Falls Church on Jul 11, 2014 12:15 pm • linkreport

@ AdamL:this seems like a great idea to help pull other dangerous chemicals out of the water!

The problem is to get the stuff out of the water. Styrofoam degrades quickly into smaller pieces, which are then mistaken by wildlife and eaten (while full of toxins).

by Jasper on Jul 11, 2014 12:34 pm • linkreport

Please don't listen to the liars DC Council.

by NE John on Jul 11, 2014 12:38 pm • linkreport

@ Jasper - In regards to the bottles and cans making up most of the trash in the Anacostia, my guess is that bottles and cans includes plastic bottles - another source of plastic pollution in our waterways.

by Janel on Jul 11, 2014 12:55 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Sally on Jul 11, 2014 1:04 pm • linkreport

@charlie: By far the largest offenders are food trucks. I'd start by those and the amount of litter they produce.

According to some googled census data there are over 10,000 food service establishments in the DC area. There are maybe 500 food trucks.

How on earth can you say that food trucks are 'by far' the biggest offenders?

by jyindc on Jul 11, 2014 1:20 pm • linkreport

Really? Trash isn't a problem in the Anacostia? Ever been to Yards Park after a rainstorm and seen all of DC and MD's trash washing up by the wading basin? It's disgusting.

by JES on Jul 11, 2014 1:50 pm • linkreport

@JES:

Exactly. My girlfriend and I have been kayaking on the Anacostia lately and it is really unfortuante how much trash there is in the river. We particpated in the river clean-up day this spring and although we removed several large bags full of trash it is just one small part-- and each time it rains more trash just ends up in the river. This ban would be a good start.

I also agree about the desirability of a 5 cent bottle deposit.

by 202_Cyclist on Jul 11, 2014 2:46 pm • linkreport

Styrene is present in many foods and beverages, including wheat, beef, strawberries, peanuts, coffee beans and cinnamon. It is naturally present to flavor foods, and is used as a flavoring additive to baked goods, frozen dairy products, soft candy, and gelatins and puddings, with permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If it’s considered safe by the FDA, then it’s safe to be used in polystyrene foam. Here’s more info on styrene: http://www.foamfacts.com/health/

Also, a better solution to reducing litter is to create a foam recycling program. We could add foam to the recycling infrastructure in DC and then provide more recycling bins at restaurants and near food trucks.

by John S. on Jul 11, 2014 3:06 pm • linkreport

DC could do a much better job of promoting recycling in general. A good start would be recycling bins for cans and bottles outside of the metro stations.

by 202_Cyclist on Jul 11, 2014 3:19 pm • linkreport

John S - do you happen to work for the Dart Container Corporation? Whose website you copied/pasted that paragraph from?

by engrish_major on Jul 11, 2014 3:23 pm • linkreport

Now that there are better alternatives its crazy that we still use stryofoam.

by BTA on Jul 11, 2014 3:35 pm • linkreport

Recycling would be great; maybe the DC Council should consider a tax on polystyrene to pay for the cost of collecting it from the river and the equipment needed to recycle it.

I bet accounting for these costs, in the tax, would make polystyrene alternatives much more cost competitive.

by sk on Jul 11, 2014 3:41 pm • linkreport

John S - Uh, that's not how the chemistry of polymers works... Even if styrene is present in foods, polystyrene could have very different properties. As one example, vinyl chloride monomer is a highly toxic gas. Its polymer derivative, PVC, is a largely stable, hard plastic. There may be valid arguments for not banning polystyrene outright, but the chemical argument you present is not one of them.

by A Chemist on Jul 11, 2014 3:46 pm • linkreport

What about plastic utensils? Is there a biodegradable alternative?

by DaveG on Jul 11, 2014 3:49 pm • linkreport

DaveG wood chopsticks
John S. ecause something is in trace amounts naturally without harm doesn't mean altered, artificial use is safe. Cyanide is in peach pits. Trace amounts of arsenic are in food because it occurs naturally in the soil. You don't want these things in large amounts, in naturally occurring amounts they don't do any harm.

by asffa on Jul 11, 2014 4:03 pm • linkreport

@assfa - What about forks, spoons, knives?

by DaveG on Jul 11, 2014 4:21 pm • linkreport

I'd caution everyone to think twice before advocating for bottle deposits. I lived in MI and even with a car, dealing with returning bottles and cans was a pain in the a$$. Dragging large amounts of cans to the store doesn't exactly mesh well with walkability, not to mention that grocers and other vendors who accept them would then need to rent and occupy even more precious urban retail square footage.

by JES on Jul 11, 2014 7:14 pm • linkreport

Just bring your empties when you walk or bike to the store for more beer :-)

by DaveG on Jul 11, 2014 9:11 pm • linkreport

@JES: the whole point of a deposit is that most people won't return their cans and bottles. That revenue then becomes a fee that the state can apply towards environmental mitigation actions and other such programs.

(I am from Massachusetts, where the "deposit" was considered more of a tiny tax.)

by Low Headways on Jul 12, 2014 11:23 am • linkreport

Anything, ANYTHING the Council can do to help reduce the appalling amount of litter in this city has my support. I've spent countless hours picking up litter, bottles and cans over the 28 years I've lived in DC in three different neighborhoods: MtP, A-M, and now Michigan Park. I am completely obsessed with keeping my neighborhood clean (and recycling every bottle and can I collect).

Very sadly, I fear that no amount of legislation or program will ever change the "I Don't Care" culture of people who were never, ever taught that littering is wrong.

In 1987, the bottling industry opposed the deposit bill that had been put to referendum. They enlisted the support of black churches to convince some of the electorate that it would result in the loss of jobs. Like much in this city, it was vetoed largely along racial lines. I have to wonder if such a bill could be approved today...

by Tom in Michigan Park on Jul 12, 2014 11:25 am • linkreport

@JES: the difference is that even if many people don't consider the deposit enough to change their behaviour, you'll see a LOT of people who will collect cans and bottles. In San Diego I used to see guys driving around in pickup trucks near the beach areas picking up tons of recyclables left behind every day — sure, some of that would have been picked up by the city workers but there used to be a lot more on the sidewalks, sand, or in the water.

by Chris Adams on Jul 12, 2014 11:29 am • linkreport

A ban sounds like a great idea to me – any sort of deposit system strong enough to change people's behaviour would need to be a steep enough price that'd it be a ban in all but name. It'd be tempting to allow biodegradable plastics but most of them don't actually break down well outside of high temperature commercial composting operations which wouldn't help much in a city where too many people don't mind littering.

In the meantime, perhaps we should be looking into how to get a water wheel to deal with the trash which is already in the water:

http://www.npr.org/2014/06/23/324738205/baltimores-water-wheel-keeps-on-turning-pulling-in-tons-of-trash

by Chris Adams on Jul 12, 2014 11:40 am • linkreport

I believe deposits are only for glass bottles and aluminum cans. That won't do anything for plastic bottles, which constitute most disposed bottles these days.

Another approach is to stop buying single serving, single use plastics. Don't buy disposable crap to begin with. If more people stopped buying this stuff, there'd be less trash or things that need to be recycled to begin with.

by Janel on Jul 12, 2014 11:58 am • linkreport

@ John S:Here’s more info on styrene:

And here's the MSDS:
http://www.sciencelab.com/msds.php?msdsId=9925112

Toxicological Data on Ingredients:
Styrene (monomer): ORAL (LD50): Acute: 2650 mg/kg [Rat]. 316 mg/kg [Mouse].
VAPOR (LC50): Acute: 12000 ppm 4 hour(s) [Rat]. 9500 ppm 4 hour(s) [Mouse].

Potential Acute Health Effects:
Very hazardous in case of eye contact (irritant). Hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant, permeator), of ingestion, of inhalation. Inflammation of the eye is characterized by redness, watering, and itching.
Potential Chronic Health Effects:
CARCINOGENIC EFFECTS: Classified + (PROVEN) by OSHA. Classified 2B (Possible for human.) by IARC. A4 (Not
classifiable for human or animal.) by ACGIH.
MUTAGENIC EFFECTS: Not available.
TERATOGENIC EFFECTS: Not available.
DEVELOPMENTAL TOXICITY: Not available. The substance is toxic to the nervous system, upper respiratory tract.
Repeated or prolonged exposure to the substance can produce target organs damage.

by Jasper on Jul 12, 2014 1:00 pm • linkreport

Awesome water wheel!

by asffa on Jul 12, 2014 3:19 pm • linkreport

I lived in Germany where a bottle/can deposit is mandatory. Depending on the type of plastic, glass or metal, the deposit was between ten and 25 euro cents (13-32 cents). The plastic crates that many bottles were sold in also carry a deposit.

I don't know what the recycling rate is in Germany but I'd bet it's high. There was often a line for the reverse vending machines where deposit-payable containers are returned at the major grocery stores. You don't see many bottles or cans thrown on the street in Germany, if recyclable containers are left out, someone enterprising (or down on their luck) will pick them up and take them in for a refund.

The system could definitely work here. I for one am tired of seeing trash on the streets and a financial incentive for keeping the city clean would be helpful, I think.

by Bryan on Jul 13, 2014 10:26 pm • linkreport

There are biodegradable plasticware utensils you can buy. I believe they are made of cornstarch or a similar material.

by BTA on Jul 14, 2014 8:33 am • linkreport

@Low Headways
the whole point of a deposit is that most people won't return their cans and bottles. That revenue then becomes a fee that the state can apply towards environmental mitigation actions and other such programs.
(I am from Massachusetts, where the "deposit" was considered more of a tiny tax.)

What? In states with bottle deposits people recycle WAY MORE than those in states without. The average recycle rate among states with deposit laws is like twice the national average.

The deposit probably should be higher in most states - Michigan gets up to 90-something percent recycle rates with 10 cents.

by MLD on Jul 14, 2014 9:47 am • linkreport

Any bottle/can deposit law has to be based on the type of container, not its contents.

In Massachusetts the original bottle bill, passed in 1984 or thereabouts, applied to carbonated soda and beer. It applied to glass, metal and plastic bottles.

In the 30 years since that bill passed, our country has seen a huge growth in sales of bottled water, iced tea and energy drinks -- none of which are covered by the Massachusetts bottle bill, unless it has been amended. (I don't think it's been amended, but now that I have lived in Maryland for more than 20 years, I don't keep up with my native commonwealth the way I used to.)

A viable bottle bill needs to address all types of bottled and canned beverages -- sports drinks, water, beer, wine, even hard liquor (who hasn't seen whisky bottles in parking lots?).

by Greenbelt Gal on Jul 14, 2014 12:16 pm • linkreport

Another benefit of a deposit fee for cans/bottles is it would serve as a defacto soda tax.

by 202_Cyclist on Jul 14, 2014 1:56 pm • linkreport

@202 - No, because you get your money back upon return of said container.

by DaveG on Jul 14, 2014 3:58 pm • linkreport

The ban is the way to go. Individually these things don't have the impact that government actions can provide, like bans. The bottle bill that was defeated "along racial lines" was stoked by industry exploiting those racial lines. We can put out all the recycle bins we want, but until someone verifies that recycling actually is taking place, it's useless. The rate is appallingly low. And then, after verifying it's not taking place, you gotta bring complaints and law suits. It's a lot of work. But we are not really recycling in the District of Columbia.

by Jazzy on Jul 15, 2014 8:08 am • linkreport

@Bryan

I don't want a 5, 10 cent deposit. We already have a very efficient system in DC. In our building -- like apartment buildings throughout this city -- each floor has its own trash room and people leave their cans, plastic, in a bin for recycling. It's an excellent system.

I have no room to store bottles and cans and since I don't own a car, like so many others around here, having to return them to a store will be a major pain.

Moreover, our stores are ill-equipped for handle recycling. In states that have this, you need to create room for the glass/can/plastic-crushing machines. These are large machines. Lines often form. It's a total waste of time.

What will happen is most people will pay the deposit, of course, and then drop the bottles and cans off in the apartment bin, as they do now. They will write off the loss.

I honestly do not see in our neighborhood a lot of trash on the street. It's kept pretty clean by the residents themselves and the local businesses.

by kob on Jul 15, 2014 12:10 pm • linkreport

Another royal pain with deposits, is stores will only accept the products that they sell.

by kob on Jul 15, 2014 12:13 pm • linkreport

I'm thrilled that this is going through and wish that Arlington would follow suit. I've been avoidiing eating at the Wharf in order to avoid compromising my polystrene principles (seafood principles will be compromised). I want to take my office there. I wonder how long I will need to wait. Hopefully not until 2016.

by Ren on Jul 15, 2014 1:43 pm • linkreport

@Ren - As a locality in a Dillon rule state, Arlington only has the authority given to it by the state, and I don't believe this is something within its given authority.

by Janel on Jul 15, 2014 2:49 pm • linkreport

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