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With Styrofoam Ban, Environmentalists Hope For Cleaner Anacostia

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Environmental advocates say that Styrofoam containers used by carry-outs and food trucks end up in the Anacostia River, where they break down and pose a threat to fish and humans.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
Environmental advocates say that Styrofoam containers used by carry-outs and food trucks end up in the Anacostia River, where they break down and pose a threat to fish and humans.

Walk into just about any carry-out in D.C., and you’ll likely be handed your food in a polystyrene foam container, more commonly known as Styrofoam. Walk along the banks of the Anacostia River as it flows through Maryland and D.C., and you might see the remnants of those foam containers floating in the water.

But with a new bill signed by Mayor Vincent Gray on Tuesday, environmental advocates are hoping to break that cycle — and clean up the polluted river in the process. The bill bans restaurants, carry-outs and food trucks from using the containers, pushing them instead towards recyclable or compostable alternatives.

According to backers of the bill, which follows the lead of cities like Seattle and San Francisco, fewer Styrofoam containers will mean less trash — and fewer toxic pollutants — in the river.

"Polystyrene foam as a food package gets littered and then it goes into the water and it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. It never really goes away, and it creates a persistent pollution problem in our rivers," says Julie Lawson, a D.C. resident who's been involved with several organizations working to clean up the river.

Lawson says that that roughly 40 percent of the trash fished out of the river on an annual basis is Styrofoam. Unlike other refuse, she says, the foam particles absorb pesticides and fertilizers that can then threaten the health of fish and humans.

The ban, which will take effect in January 2016, was included in a broader environmental bill including provisions ranging from transit incentives to home energy use assessments. Gray signed it during a ceremony at a boathouse along the Anacostia, where he also announced that the Department of Environment would start analyzing sediment samples from the riverbed to better understand what pollutants are present and where they come from.

The bill comes four years after D.C. imposed a five-cent fee on plastic bags, a move advocates say has cut down on the amount of bags making it into the river. D.C. officials say the Styrofoam ban will have a similar effect.

But Warren Robinson, who works with the American Chemistry Council, says that by banning Styrofoam, D.C. might force food sellers to use containers that are bad for the environment in other ways. "A polystyrene foam cup, for example, requires one-third of the energy needed to produce some types of compostable alternatives," he says.

Robinson also argues that D.C. does not yet have large-scale composting facilities, and that banning Styrofoam would increase costs for many small carry-outs and food trucks.

But D.C. officials say they are prepared to help those businesses make the change to alternative containers over the next 18 months, and are encouraging them to work together to buy non-Styrofoam containers in bulk to help cut down on costs.

Once the bill goes into effect, restaurants or food trucks caught using the foam containers will face fines.

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