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In matching green jackets, the pair of environmental protection specialists prepare to hit every bar and restaurant in Adams Morgan. Bar crawls on New Year’s Eve in the nightlife neighborhood aren’t usually this sober. But on the morning of Dec. 31, Christopher Kibler and Lillian Power of the D.C. Department of Energy & Environment are making one last push to tell businesses about the District’s ban on food and drink containers made of expanded polystyrene foam, commonly referred to as Styrofoam.
“Hi, I’m from D.C. government,” Kibler recites at each stop, before reminding the staff that if they use foam they’ll have to switch to paper or plastic by Jan. 1. Every business gets a flyer explaining the new law and a window sticker that reads “Foam Free DC.” Clipboard in hand, Kibler asks employees or managers if they use foam and jots down some notes. The responses quickly become repetitive:
“I don’t think we have any.”
“We’ve never used it.”
“We don’t use any.”
For the past six months, DOEE staff has been hitting the streets a few days each month trying to get the word out about the foam ban. (Styrofoam is actually a brand of insulation and crafting material, but it is commonly—and incorrectly—used to refer to foam cups, plates, and containers.) As Kibler sets out in Adams Morgan, he notes they’ve already visited about 450 businesses across every major corridor in the city. Foam holdouts are rare, especially since DOEE has already sent out three mailings. “Even the businesses that do still have foam, a lot of them are just like, ‘You’ve told me already. I get it. We’re ready to move away,’” Kibler says.
After clearing part of 18th Street, Kibler and Power regroup. Power reports that a pizza spot was using foam but had replacement containers ready to go.
Kibler says he’s surprised by how few negative interactions he’s had about the ban. He can count them on just one hand. “Mostly it’s just ambivalence or positive. I think a lot of people understand why we’re doing this.”
The “why,” of course, is that foam has become a kind of invasive species in the Anacostia River. While floating trash traps in the waterways can catch plastic bottles, foam is far more insidious. It breaks apart fairly easily, leaving small pieces that a bird or other animal might eat. And because toxins cling to the material, those chemicals can then be introduced into the food chain. Foam also takes up a lot of space in landfills because it does not decompose.
Kibler says there are about a dozen other cities around the country, including San Francisco and Seattle, that have similar foam bans. The new D.C. law applies to food and drink containers for one-time use, like bowls, plates, and cups. Businesses can still use foam to package raw meat and fish or receive foam-packaged products from outside the District. Foam food containers can also be purchased for home use.
Continuing to canvass Adams Morgan, Kibler works his way up Columbia Road until he hits a Peruvian joint called Pollo Granjero. A tower of foam cups are stacked on the counter.
Owner Juan Loyola already knows about the ban and says he has been trying to find replacements. He pulls out a paper cup to show Kibler. “You’re aware the price is twice as much?” Specifically, he says the foam cups costs around $28 per thousand, while the paper are around $60. It might not seem like a lot, but to Loyola, it’s one more rising cost.
“It’s very hard to do business in D.C.,” Loyola says, citing everything from the rising minimum wage to the cost of metered-spot parking in front of the restaurant. “Even the gas, the water is very high. So for people like me, it’s very hard.”
Kibler directs Loyola to an online list of companies that sell packaging that is compliant with the law. But Loyola buys all his supplies at Restaurant Depot in Alexandria, and isn’t so eager to have to use additional vendors. “It’s nice to go to one place,” he says.
Loyola says he is not against the ban, as long as the D.C. government helps businesses find alternatives. Kibler leaves him a sheet with a number to call with any questions. For non-native English speakers, there are translators available.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the foam holdouts tend to be takeout spots. And like Loyola, most business owners wary of the switch are worried about costs, Kibler says. Foam tends to be the cheapest option, but Kibler says alternatives don’t cost that much more in the grand scheme of things.
“If you’re holding a $15 meal in a four-cent container, an increase of two or three cents per container isn’t really going to be that much, so that’s how we look at it, and we have that conversation with the businesses,” Kibler says.
DOEE has been talking to suppliers to get their cooperation, as well. For example, Costco, where some smaller businesses buy supplies, plans to begin labeling products that are foam-ban compliant. And because every business in the city will be moving away from foam, Kibler expects that will shift the market and help bring down costs of the next cheapest products.
Beyond the financial factor, some find foam to be a superior way of keeping liquids hot while not burning customers’ hands. PhoWheels food truck owner Huy Nguyen says he previously used foam because it was hard to find a material that would hold up to his hot Vietnamese soup. But in mid-2013, he switched to biodegradable paper containers, which he says are more durable and do the job just as well. The cost wasn’t a drastic change either. “I didn’t really like using Styrofoam anyway,” he says. “It’s just better for the environment.”
For the most part, DMV Food Truck Association Executive Director Che Ruddell-Tabisola says the ban is a non-issue for his members. “When it was introduced, we were talking about it amongst ourselves, and none of us were using Styrofoam,” he says. Ruddell-Tabisola made curbside rounds to talk to more food truck operators about it. Of the handful who were still using foam containers, “they said in so many words, ‘Yeah, I really need to stop using this shit anyway.’”
Ruddell-Tabisola says customers expect trucks to use green, recyclable materials. He compares it to taking credit cards: “We don’t love taking credit cards, but our consumers and our supporters expect us to take credit cards. And similarly, they want to feel good about the packaging and where they’re buying their food.”
Meanwhile, big chains like Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, and Dunkin’ Donuts have already made the switch. Chick-fil-A is now using paper cups, while Dunkin’ Donuts developed a cup made out of recyclable polypropylene to comply with a similar foam ban in New York. The doughnut chain’s new cup will roll out elsewhere around the country this year. It’s more rigid but has a similar look and feel, playing to customer nostalgia for the original foam cups.
DOEE inspectors are out enforcing the ban this week and will continue to visit several neighborhoods every week. For the first few months, businesses caught using foam will have 30 days to phase it out. If they continue to use foam, they’ll get a $100 fine. That amount doubles with each subsequent inspection in which the business is found to be incompliant with the law. The fine caps at $800 per violation. Kibler says the goal is not to collect fines, but to make sure businesses follow the new rules.
When the D.C. government evaluated the Anacostia River’s pollutants in 2008, foam was among the most common types of litter, alongside bags, plastic bottles, and snack wrappers. The foam ban comes on the heels of the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act, better known as the “Bag Law,” which took effect at the start of 2010. The law requires D.C. businesses selling food or alcohol to charge five cents for a plastic bag, a portion of which goes toward cleaning up and protecting the Anacostia River. The law also requires that the bags be recyclable.
So far, bag litter and usage appear to be down. The Alice Ferguson Foundation, an environmental group that worked with D.C. regulators, reported a 72 percent decrease in littered plastic bags found during D.C. cleanups in the four years after than bag fee took effect. In a 2013 survey, four out of five District residents said they had reduced their use of disposable bags since the law went into effect.
Kibler is hoping for even more dramatic results from the latest law: “We’re hoping the foam ban will result in a 100 percent reduction.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery