Reviving a D.C. River: Out with the Foam, In with the Compostables

Reviving a D.C. River: Out with the Foam, In with the Compostables

Pity the poor Anacostia River. It’s not enough that the 8.5-mile waterway, which sloshes through the nation’s capital, is overshadowed by its more muscular and famous cousin, the Potomac.

The Anacostia is literally choking on an assortment of trash. Three government entities along its banks are trying to revive it with a Heimlich maneuver, of sorts, by banning the sale and use of disposable polystyrene foam products.

It’s an effort to rid the region of packing peanuts and ubiquitous food-related foam such as take-out clamshells, cups, plates and bowls, and phase in alternatives that are compostable and recyclable.

Bans are slated to begin Jan. 1, 2016 in Washington, D.C., and its northwestern neighbor, Maryland’s Montgomery County. Prince George’s, a Maryland county bordering Washington to the east, is in the midst of tweaking similar legislation to meet that same start-up deadline.

These jurisdictions are not alone. In California, the epicenter of foam eschewers, 70-plus cities have banned polystyrene. Elsewhere, New York City, Seattle, Portland, Ore., Minneapolis, Westchester, N.Y., and Freeport, Maine, are on board as well.

“My entire life revolves around trash,” says Julie Lawson the director of Trash Free Maryland, an alliance of more than 60 like-minded organizations. “The idea in the Washington area is to encourage a regional approach to solving local environmental problems and cleaning up the Anacostia River.”

The bonus of a cross-border initiative in an area with a population of 2.5 million is that businesses and residents will learn together, Lawson says. In addition to creating a broad market for polystyrene alternatives, she adds, the ban will force government officials to move beyond small pilot programs geared for composting and recycling foam-free products.

Anne Germain, director of waste and recycling technology for the Washington-based National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA), says communities need to tailor bans to their own needs instead of simply jumping on the anti-foam bandwagon.

“Everybody likes an easy answer when it’s really a complex, nuanced worldview,” she says. “Sometimes people are too quick to boil it down to recycling is good and landfilling is bad.”

In theory, foam (expanded polystyrene) can be recycled, she explains. But it’s not realistic to do so because the lightweight product’s value is based on weight and filling a truck would mean “paying some guy to drive air from one place to another.”

The American Chemistry Council, a trade group, and Dart Container Corp., the largest global manufacturer of foam products, have opposed polystyrene bans nationwide. Representatives from both outfits testified against the Prince George’s County legislation when council members discussed it on March 26 at an environment committee meeting.

And that’s not the only pushback. Administrators fixated on a budget deficit worry about the expense of enforcing the ban and collecting fines. The Restaurant Association of Maryland frets that its members won’t able to afford or find substitute containers, utensils or straws. Grocery stores have already been granted exemptions for prepackaged soups and foam trays used to package raw meat, fish, poultry or seafood.

“This is a matter of priorities, not whether or not we can afford it,” Council Member Mary Lehman, the bill’s sponsor, said during the March committee meeting. “It’s a false choice that we have to choose between the environment and the economy.”

The fact is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared the Anacostia River and its 13 major tributaries as federally impaired with a seemingly endless tide of trash. Its vast watershed encompasses 176 square miles in Washington and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. The Anacostia, formed at the confluence of the Northwest and Northeast branches in Maryland, merges with the Potomac at Hains Point in Southwest Washington.

Under the Clean Water Act, Prince George’s County alone is mandated to remove 170,628 pounds of rubbish from the watershed by 2018.

What frustrates Lawson is that 25 percent to 40 percent of the watershed’s litter by volume is foam, local surveys show. It’s almost impossible to remove it because it breaks into tiny pieces that take hundreds of years to biodegrade. Those tidbits, which are prone to absorbing petrochemicals in waterways, enter the food chain as an enticing but hazardous snack for fish and other wildlife.

“I’m well aware that banning foam is not going to change littering behavior the way a bag fee or bottle bill does,” Lawson says. “But if restaurants switch from polystyrene to paper, the paper is much easier to pick up or stop in litter traps. Most of it will fall apart in the sewer system before it even enters the streams and rivers that feed our oceans."

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