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Takoma Park puts a fork in it

styrofoam containerTakoma Park is putting a fork in polystyrene – but not a plastic one. 

Monday the city council considered legislation that would prohibit grocery stores and restaurants from using polystyrene products.

Takoma Park banned city government purchases of polystyrene in 2010 and extended restrictions to vendors such as food trucks last year.

Now, The Young Activist Act of 2014 – a nod to local students who spearheaded the campaign – would give businesses until July 1, 2015 to eliminate polystyrene packaging. The city would fine violators $200 for a first offense and $400 for repeat offenses.

Originating at Piney Branch Elementary School, the Young Activist Club has been working for years to rid its community of polystyrene, a petroleum-based substance that can become hard plastic or foam (sometimes referred to by its brand name Styrofoam).

It is often used in the food-service industry as trays and containers, disposable eating utensils and plastic and foamed cups, plates and bowls.

Anna Brookes, now an eighth-grader at Takoma Park Middle School, said the Young Activists decided to raise awareness about polystyrene – which she says poses environmental and health hazards – after searching for a topic that could affect Takoma Park.

“We decided that we needed a central focus that was both something we could do to help change the world and that would help people locally,” Brookes said.

The students raised money to bring reusable trays and a dishwasher to Piney Branch Elementary School. They supported a campaign that resulted in Montgomery County Public Schools issuing recyclable cardboard trays for school lunches this year and they recruited 37 businesses to go polystyrene-free.

 “When we first presented our ideas to people, sometimes they were opposed,” said eighth-grader Leo Blain. “But when we actually showed them some of the options they eventually got on board.”

The children said corn-based plastics and cardboard are two polystyrene alternatives.

Anna Grace Uehlein, a fourth-grader at Piney Branch, said the work has been challenging but enjoyable.

“It is really fun because you get to feel like you are making a change,” she said. “And you get to meet a lot of people and have a great time.”

Melanie Isis, director of the Takoma Langley Crossroads Development Authority, said most of the commercial center’s 24 affected businesses would support a polystyrene ban.

“The human health argument was understood. One of my restaurant owners said to me, ‘I’ll tell my supplier to use something else’,” Isis said.

Lillian Becker, a fifth-grade student at Piney Branch, said she thinks Takoma Park can be a community that leads by example and teaches other neighborhoods about responsible food packaging and waste disposal.

Becker said one of her favorite things to do – after playing with her friends – is to scan the area around the Takoma Park Community Center to make sure all garbage has been disposed of properly.

“I really, really enjoy doing it,” she said. “I just love helping out the environment, and I feel that I’m really making an impact on this world.”

Meanwhile, the Montgomery County Council is in the beginning stages of reviewing a bill that would ban the use of foam food service products and foam loose fill packaging beginning Jan.1, 2016. The ban would not extend to hard plastics made from polystyrene.

A second phase of county legislation would require food service businesses to use compostable or recyclable food service products beginning Jan. 1, 2017.

“That is a good thing,” said Councilman Seth Grimes, who drafted ordinance in Takoma Park.  “I would hope that the city council will come back at the proper time and consider either adopting the county provisions, or maybe take a further step beyond that and require only compostable items for food service ware.” 

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