BY MICHAEL CHARLES
The Prince George’s County Council is getting closer to drafting legislation that will limit the distribution of single-use food service products, an effort to reduce plastic pollution and waste.
During their March 17 meeting, county councilmembers agreed on the broad outlines of the proposed legislation but postponed a vote on the bill until certain details can be clarified.
Any possible legislation would require restaurants to provide plastic utensils, condiment packages, napkins, straws and other single-use products only upon request by the customer.
J. Kenneth Battle, Prince George’s County Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment committee director, said during the meeting, “The approach here is to change the default behavior regarding the accessory, disposable food-service ware by having these businesses provide these items when the customers requested them.”
At its March 8 meeting, the Hyattsville Environment Committee considered proposing similar legislation to the City of Hyattsville but decided to wait and see whether and how the county would act.
If the county passes a bill, it would go into effect by June 1, 2023, according to County Councilmember Dannielle Glaros (District 3), who co-sponsored the bill. Third-party food delivery platforms like DoorDash would need to comply by Aug. 1, 2023. Previously, the council had discussed the possibility of the bill being enacted in February 2023, but extended the date to allow time to educate both consumers and businesses about the bill.
“[The timeline extension] gives us a little bit over a year to have a full and robust education program for restaurants and identify if there are any challenges that we need to come back with,” said Andrea Crooms, director of the county department of the environment. “We also have time to analyze what’s happening in D.C. and learn from their own implementation process.” This January, the District restricted restaurant use of single-use plastic food service items.
Throughout the meeting, councilmembers and other speakers expressed clear support for the bill and its goal. Glaros intended the legislation to advance environmental benefits without hurting businesses. “We think that this will work well to make sure we’re eliminating waste but doing it in a way that doesn’t put unnecessary burdens on our businesses,” she said. “This allows us to enact our next step in terms of this county thinking about zero waste.”
Restaurant representatives also appeared supportive of the bill. “This is an item that a restaurant should welcome. Plastic silverware is expensive, aside from being wasteful,” said Andy Shallal, CEO and founder of Busboys and Poets, a restaurant group with locations throughout the Washington metropolitan area, including in Hyattsville. “I’m sure many of us have drawers full of plastic silverware from carryout that we don’t need.”
Members of local environmental organizations spoke in favor of the bill. “I urge you to support [the bill]. Plastic items that are made to be used for less than an hour persist in the environment for more than a century,” said Janet Gingold, chair of the Prince George’s Group of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club. “The increase in litter visible along our roadways is a symptom of the systematic problem.”
“Last year, Anacostia Watershed Society volunteers and trash traps pulled 42 tons of trash from rivers and streams of the watershed,” Christopher Williams, the society’s president and CEO, said. He added that other jurisdictions that moved to restrict single-use plastics have “shown the promising results of such legislation.”
Howard County passed a bill on March 1 that restricts the use of single-use plastics by restaurants. Officials across Maryland are also closely watching how the District’s experience plays out.
“You can see the new marketing that is out there from D.C. about shifting to upon request,” said Glaros. “This really helps address and continues to eliminate items that just don’t need to be in our waste stream.”
In late 2021, California put restrictions on single-use plastics. According to the nonprofit environmental research and advocacy organization Californians Against Waste, 561 billion single-use food service items are used annually in the U.S., leading to approximately 4.9 million tons of waste. The group said restaurants that voluntarily transitioned to providing plastic utensils and other single-use products by request only, prior to the statewide bill’s enactment, saved between $3,000 and $21,000 per year.
Optimism about the Prince George’s County bill continues to build. “It doesn’t ban anything; it just requires a service business [to] not provide single-use, non-reusable utensils, straws, stirrers, condiment packages and napkins unless the customer asks for them,” said Martha Ainsworth, chair of the Prince George’s Sierra Club Zero Waste team. “We love this bill.”